It's either the best or the worst job in solar, depending on your perspective.
Michael Ahearn, CEO of First Solar, announced that he'll be stepping down from that role and that the board is already looking for a replacement. He will stay on as executive chairman but mostly focused on policy.
First Solar, of course, is the relentless manufacturing machine of solar. Net income more than tripled in the first quarter, a time when other solar companies and the industrial world in general is crumbling. The company also continues to drop panel prices.
Whoever takes over the job will instantly be one of the most powerful people in solar.
But, man, is that going to be a tough act to follow. Whoever comes next will certainly have to contend with a lot of comparisons. So who will they get? The possibilities are:
1. Bruce Sohn. The former Intel exec has been First Solar's president for about two years and helped hone the manufacturing processes that helped make First Solar what it is today. He has also been on the board since 2003. Sohn understands manufacturing, supply chain and sales. Moreover, this is a company that prizes loyalty. It took nearly two decades of tweaking before success finally hit, and Ahearn and several investors trudged through the bad times together. Hiring interally sends a strong message.
He really is the overwhelming favorite. But since we have to list others, some candidates could include:
2. Craig Barrett. He ran Intel for years, understands manufacturing, and he lives in Arizona. And he's well connected with government leaders, national labs and universities around the globe. If they wanted a roving ambassador type to give First Solar a bigger profile globally and give Sohn steadily more responsibility, it would be tough to do better. Another Intel possibility: Sean Maloney. First Solar needs marketing help and Maloney can do that while satisfying the company's need for a gearhead.
3. Steve Chan. Hear me out. Chan is the relatively young chief marketing officer at Suntech Power Holdings and the guy who helped build their presence here. Taking Chan would hurt Suntech and give First Solar some needed marketing skills. But in all likelihood, First Solar would move Sohn up, pick someone else internally to fill Sohn's spot, and then make Chan head of marketing. First Solar, by the way, has been pretty adept at picking off technical talent from competitors. It wooed Solyndra chief scientist Markus Beck last year.
4. Mike Splinter or Richard Hill. The CEOs of, respectively, Applied Materials and Novellus. No one wants to work in semiconductor equipment forever. Solar is growing faster.
5. Bob Moffatt or Linda Stanford. IBM is crowded at the top with a lot of executives with extensive accomplishments who have also been there for years. Only one will succeed Sam Palmisano in the Texas Death Cage Match coming in a few years.
6. Jeannine Sargent. The Hilary Clinton of solar: smart, aggressive, getting well known and valuable to a competitor. Before becoming CEO of Oerlikon Solar, she worked at Veeco. Well versed in semiconductors and Silicon Valley.
7. Martin Roscheisen. Just for the sheer entertainment value.