Michigan Engineer Article - Bernard Lacroute

By Karen Thomas (BA '75)

As a small boy growing up in a tiny village in the Burgundy region of France, Bernard Lacroute (MSE EE '67) made a life-changing discovery. "My father, a woodworking craftsman, taught me to create toy trucks and planes from pieces of pine and Erector-set parts," he said. "At the age of eight, I already knew that I loved building things from scratch."

Bernard and Ronni Lacroute savor the fruits of their recent labors -- fine wine from their WillaKenzie Estate vineyard and winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Since then, Lacroute has taken his penchant for creating and constructing into the computing world -- building innovative machines, then entire companies. At Digital Equipment, he developed the VAX minicomputer and made Ethernet commercially viable. Turning 40 as he joined Sun Microsystems, he helped to blend a "bunch of brash, bright twenty-somethings" into a smoothly running team, pursuing fresh ideas (the then-new concept of desktop computers) and helping turn Sun into a multi-billion dollar powerhouse. A risk-taking entrepreneur who nevertheless thrived in corporations, Lacroute succeeded because, according to Ronni (AM LSA '67), his wife of 34 years, "He's a moving target who inspires others to keep up with him." 

One of six NASA fellows selected from hundreds of European applicants, Lacroute said of his time in Michigan, "To be blunt, I was attracted not by the appointment's prestige but the opportunity it offered to visit the United States." He returned for good after working just six months for a French aerospace company, eager to leave a society that guaranteed security and status in return for following a lockstep progression of jobs and routine assignments. "French industry assumed that you couldn't do much until you were 40," he explained. "I didn't have the patience for that. I wanted to be constrained only by my ability, not the system."

Lacroute still recalls the excitement of joining Digital in 1969 to create the VAX, the first 32-bit minicomputer. He marvels that "the company let its own team build this machine, hardware and software, from scratch. We started literally with a blank sheet of paper and built an architecture that lasted 20 years, a reference in industry even today."

Joining Sun in 1983 as its first executive vice president of engineering, he guided the company's growth from a $4-million-a-year manufacturer of technical workstations to a $2-billion-a-year supplier of distributed computing systems. His contributions ranged from technical (he developed the SPARC microprocessor, still used to build Sun's machines) to marketing ("Our concept of open computing was a powerful argument; customers weren't locked in to one specific vendor").

Today, at 57, Lacroute divides his time between Silicon Valley and Oregon's picturesque Willamette Valley, where he runs Willakenzie, his award-winning vineyard and winery, named after the sedimentary soil that nurtures over 100 acres of grapes. At Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, a high-tech venture-capital firm, he continues to pursue projects in line with his boyhood dreams: "They're not afraid to start companies from scratch," he explained. His startups include Tivoli Systems, a networking software company acquired by IBM for a billion dollars, and Flextronics, a contract manufacturing company with current annual revenues of more than $10 billion.

Lacroute plans to phase out of Kleiner within two years, but his retirement won't be conventional. "Burgundians don't play golf," he said. "We drink wine or make wine."

 

Bernard and Ronni Lacroute savor the fruits of their recent labors -- fine wine from their WillaKenzie Estate vineyard and winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Ronni Lacroute shares his passion for wine, as well as the work it takes to make the business work. "My role in the winery is a little of everything," she said. "Bookkeeping, human relations, sales -- I even did some staff training."  Ronni has also found time to work with learning-disabled kids and several other charitable endeavors, including the Classic Wines Auction, which benefits Metropolitan Family Service, and the Salud Barrel Auction, which supports healthcare for vineyard workers. 

Today, Willakenzie produces 15,000 cases a year -- "small by California standards," he said, "but our focus is on quality, and that's the way it's going to stay." Following a winemaking tradition more than 500 years old, he installed a gravity-flow system. "Instead of pumps that can bruise, grapes fall naturally into fermenting tanks, just like Newton's apple," he noted.

Lacroute hasn't been able to resist certain high-tech touches, however. They include his own invention, a computer-guided grape stomper: three large stainless steel "feet" powered by compressed air that would have made Lucy Ricardo's stint in the wine tubs obsolete. Computers also perform more sophisticated functions, including hourly soil-moisture reports produced from ground probes stationed at four different depths.

Like almost everything else Lacroute has attempted, his winemaking efforts have earned favorable notice. The Wall Street Journal gave his 1999 pinot noir its 2001 "Delicious" award, naming it a top-10 favorite among thousands around the globe.

"I had to learn this business from scratch, too," Lacroute observed. He estimated that he visited 100 wineries worldwide before climbing on his bulldozer to clear his first acre.

"There's a theme I want to emphasize," he said. "If you do something, you'd better be passionate about it because then you'll figure out how to make it work -- in spite of failures. I don't care if you're running a marathon, building a computer or making a bottle of wine, passion is a must. With it, you'll find new ways and try new things. And you'll be happy doing it."

Ronni Lacroute has a similar outlook but puts it a different way. "Don't resist something that is moving forward," she said. "Instead, go with it and let it take you wherever it's going to go, and make the best of it. There's something exciting out there: Reach for it. And that applies to career and marriage both."

Bernard and Ronni Lacroute are, in short, doers, optimists and achievers, as is evidenced in every part of their lives. In recognition of his computing achievements and service to alumni, Lacroute received a 1999 EECS Departmental Merit Award from the College.

Karen Thomas is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in McCall's, Family Circle, American Profile and other national publications.

- Michigan Engineer Spring/Summer 2002 (College of Engineering)