BUY A NOTEBOOK COMPUTER from Dell, IBM, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, or Gateway, and chances are good you're enjoying a product made by Barry Lam. These top companies turn to Lam's Quanta Computer to make some or all of their notebooks. Lam has built his company into a leading manufacturer with $1.6 billion in sales and an 8.5% worldwide market share--second only to Toshiba Corp. In an age of incredible turbulence in the computer industry, this Taiwanese engineer has emerged a constant winner.
Lam has prospered by melding engineering talent, innovation, and entrepreneurial verve. His success offers insights into Taiwan's impressive advance up the electronics technology ladder. Lam, 50, was born and raised in Hong Kong, but moved to Taiwan to attend National Taiwan University. He jokes now that he wasn't a stellar student. But he and some former classmates in 1973 launched Kimpo, a maker of the lowly handheld calculator. Lam became president and built the company into the world's largest contract calculator maker.
By the late 1980s, Lam was looking for new challenges. As technology for making flat-panel displays matured, he figured the next big thing would be notebook PCs. A minority shareholder of Kimpo, he couldn't persuade the company's directors to take a risk on the newfangled machines. So Lam quit and started Quanta in 1988 with a team of Kimpo engineers. Within two years, the young company had shown a product at a German trade show and attracted Siemens and Philips Electronics as customers.
Thanks to Quanta's close ties to U.S. vendors, the Asia crisis hasn't even registered on Lam's computer screens. Last year, earnings rose 70%, to $281 million. This year, it forecasts revenue will grow 35%, twice the rate of industry sales. Its stock is up 55% since it went public in Taipei on Jan. 8.
Lam's experience in calculators taught him a lot about designing power and functionality into lightweight packages. To Lam, Quanta's role is to offer combinations of notebook features--a bit like the menu of a gourmet restaurant. ''The chef can be very innovative, but the decision is made by the customer,'' he says. ''We have to make them feel we're giving them the best choices.'' Once a customer has signed on, the next step is to get new, high-quality models into volume production quickly. ''If we can do that, our customers will be very profitable and they will continue to do business with us,'' he says.
Lam says a key to success in a competitive business is keeping his engineers and other employees content. He attributes the company's low turnover to a profit-sharing plan and the pride his team takes in quality. He says that same pride keeps him going, too. Since the IPO, ''I've kept all my [Quanta] stock and continued to work just as before,'' he says. ''I like to see people enjoy using my product. This is the mission of an engineer.''
Lam, who usually keeps a low profile and shuns interviews, is reluctant to talk about what's next. But he will say that he sees a future where just about everyone carries a portable that can be plugged into a variety of devices, such as other computers, TVs, and appliances, depending on the need. With that sort of forward thinking, Lam has kept the Dells and Gateways coming back, and Taiwan's high-tech factories humming.
Engineer, Billionaire and
Founder of Quanta Computer, Taiwan