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Red Hat CEO, state share mutual respect

Posted November 10, 2010

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— The honors have come in droves to Matthew Szulik for more than a decade. Perhaps the most precious came Wednesday night as the North Carolina Technology Association presented him with its Outstanding Achievement award.

“It was very surprising – and very humbling,” said Szulik, who retired as chairman of Raleigh-based Red Hat earlier this year at the age of 53.

“To be honored with an award given to other leaders such as former Gov. Jim Hunt and Jim Goodmon [CEO of Capitol Broadcasting, parent company of WRAL-TV and WRAL.com] is hard to imagine.”

Szulik now spends his days caring for his 96-year-old father, Raymond, who suffers from dementia. Szulik stepped down as Red Hat CEO in 2007 and when he gave up the chairmanship role he only cited family concerns.

Szulik talked openly Wednesday about his deep love and desire to support his father, a 1938 graduate of North Carolina State University. Szulik and his wife, Kyle, also cared for her father, Claude McKinney, a former NCSU professor and the creative force behind the Centennial Campus at N.C. State University where Red Hat is based. He died two years ago.

“It was a deep sense of responsibility my family felt for Claude and my dad that we were given the opportunity to care for both of them in our home,” Szulik explained.

NCTA recognized Szulik for his 12-year career in leading a small Durham-based startup focused on free, open-source software to a New York Stock Exchange listed company with a market value of more than $8 billion. Starting as president in 1998, he became chief executive officer the next year and chairman in 2002. As Red Hat grew and moved to Centennial Campus, Szulik also became active in efforts to improve education and the economy in a state he had adopted as his own.

He also is a trustee at Appalachian State University.

A native of Massachusetts, Szulik has grown to love North Carolina deeply. Before joining Red Hat, he held a variety of roles at other tech ventures in the state. Szulik takes great pride in having demonstrated that North Carolina can produce great companies – not just tobacco and barbecue – as a Silicon Valley venture capitalist told him in 1998.

“My father-in-law had a compelling vision for North Carolina. So too did Gov. Hunt and [former UNC system president] William Friday,” Szulik said. “If you look back at the past 100 years, men such as [former Gov.] Luther Hodges and [Duke scholar and author] John Hope Franklin, Gov. Hunt and others recognized the opportunity they were given to advance all of North Carolina, and they did.

“I had a responsibility in my position to give back, to not only be looking out for the returns of shareholders but also to give to the community. I believe a great deal in giving back and in social responsibility.

“To be recognized for that is a tribute to the mentorship I received from many civic and other leaders,” he added. “Let’s just say I learned at the feet of the masters.”

For more than a decade, the face and trademark burr haircut of Szulik were well-known icons in the world of high tech. Taking on the role of evangelist for Linux open source software and Red Hat, he traveled the world preaching the gospel of collaboration and shared knowledge.

Red Hat grew from a company of 40 people when he was hired by company co-founder Bob Young into an international company. The company has clearly demonstrated the commercial power of Linux while rousing the ire and stirring legal battles with proprietary software companies such as Microsoft.

Despite his relative youth, Szulik said he has no intention of returning to a corporate role. Instead, he serves on some boards and speaks about entrepreneurship, hoping to inspire others to strike out on their own. “I think what I have learned can best be shared by working with others rather than running a company,” he said.

Szulik’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.

Ernst & Young recognized Szulik as its U.S. Entrepreneur of the Year in 2008 and as its World Entrepreneur in 2009. In 2005, Morgan Stanley chose Szulik as its Leadership Award for Global Commerce winner.

The NCTA honor, however, is very special to Szulik for what he believes it means.

“The achievement was hopefully to set a great example on behalf of my family,” he said of his Red Hat career.

“In this state, in this country to be given the opportunity to create a great company like Red Hat and to serve our region in the process is something for which I will forever be grateful."

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