RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — The tenacity and inventiveness which have been the trademarks of his career have brought more recognition to Cree co-founder R. Neal Hunter.

On Saturday, Ernst & Young named Hunter as its “Entrepreneur of the Year” — one of the major awards handed out in the tech industry.

But one wonders if Neal wouldn’t have wanted to share the honor with his brother, Jeff, and the three researchers from NC State and one from MCNC who helped launch Cree in 1987.

Hunter has shared before the story about how the group bootstrapped Cree into one of the world’s leading designers and manufacturers of light-emitting diodes which now light up our cell phones and multiple other devices. (With due apologies to Kmart, these guys really made the first “blue light specials”.) Cree also is pushing edges in laser and silicon carbide research.

The group put in place a foundation of entrepreneurship, keen business sense and technical expertise to build a company now worth nearly $2 billion and employing moiré than 1,000 people.

Back in June, at a talk with the IndUS Entrepreneurs, Hunter shared his secrets for success. They produced a lot of laughs — and make a lot of sense.

Dreaming is important, he said, and so is support.

Building a team

“At least one person every day said, ‘Yeah, we can,’ when everyone else said, ‘No, you’re nuts’,” Hunter said. “Having a team helped get us through.”

Among his keys to success were:

  • “You have to start lean and think lean”
  • “Be comfortable with risk and failure”
  • “Have a sense of humor”
  • “Have a sense of integrity”
  • “Always hire the hard worker over the flashy name”
  • “Surround yourself with people who share your dream”

Cree’s creation dates to Hunter’s discussions with the scientists while he was a chemical student. Their collaboration led to experiments and patent-winning technology surrounding silicon and the creation of LEDs.

Boot-strapping from the start

But Hunter and company got off to a rocky start. An investor backed out as the stock market crashed in 1987, so Hunter, an NCSU graduate, and company mortgaged homes, used credit cards to raise cash, and hit on family members for more cash. As he told the IndUS group, Hunter also leaned on a owner of several McDonald’s franchises for an investment after learning the rich guy was dating one of his cousins.

Now that’s entrepreneurship.

Even before starting the company, Hunter had an entrepreneurial streak. He told the IndUS crowd how he traded stocks while a student at NCSU, and he acknowledged books weren’t his priority. He had a B- average.

As for being an entrepreneur, he pointed out: “This isn’t rocket science.”

I’m not so sure.

Every entrepreneur has a dream. Most work hard. Few succeed.

The successful entrepreneur brilliantly combines skill, determination and good fortune into a winning combination. That’s brilliance. Brilliance took us to the moon.

Hunter also gives back to the community. He’s active in charity work, as E&Y pointed out.

“Neal Hunter’s hard work is a true example of how the entrepreneurial idea improves our lives,” Gregory Ericksen, who headed up the E&Y program, said in announcing the award. “Cree’s products are advancing the modern conveniences that have become essential to our way of life.”

Hunter took over as Cree’s CEO in 1994 and now serves as its chairman. He and his brother also are real estate developers. Success hasn’t removed his entrepreneurial spirit. And that should come as no surprise. As E&Y noted in its announcement, Hunter’s grandfather was a pioneer in the selling of Christmas trees in the mountains around Boone where Hunter was born.

It’s Thanksgiving tomorrow. You can get Hunter will be saying thanks — a lot.

Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.