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June 30, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 25 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Ace in the Deck
Stan Shih has kept the company on the move
By ALEJANDRO REYES Taipei

There is no flowing white mane la Morita Akio, no high-octane temperament and no self-indulgent American Express commercial. Acer chairman Stan Shih Chen-jung has a nondescript look that snugly fits his unassuming personality. And yet Stan, as his colleagues and staff usually refer to him, is much more than a math whiz who hit it big. When he retires -- which he says he will do in five years -- he will be remembered as a consummate corporate strategist, a thinker-manager whose belief in constant retooling turned his company into an eminent survivor, if not the global computer powerhouse he had wanted it to be.

While Shih, 55, is Acer's public face, he some time ago devolved day-to-day responsibilities to his managers. The crucial task of developing new Internet-related services is in the hands of longtime friend George Huang, a co-founder of the company. Huang says: "Stan briefs you on the principles and concepts, but then leaves you to implement." Shih tells Asiaweek: "I delegate most of the jobs to my executives so I can afford to think about new ideas." He comes up with concepts by reading, meeting people and simply asking questions. Colleagues say he is deliberate, but not hardheaded. "There is a lot of debate if we have differences," explains Simon Lin, Acer InfoSystems Group CEO, who oversees Acer's PC-related business. "He takes some time to think about the issues and seldom just says no right away." Lin admits that he and Shih have differed over some matters, including brand strategy and management organization, "but we resolve disputes very easily." And when it comes to the major strategic issues, "Stan makes the final decision."

Shih isn't averse to putting Acer and his management under the microscope. The company was one of the first major Asian enterprises to cooperate with Harvard Business School case-study writers. At a Harvard conference in Hong Kong for Asian business-school professors two years ago, Shih was there to brief participants. And he recently started lecturing on business strategy and entrepreneurship for two hours a week at his alma mater, Taipei's National Chiao Tung University. Given free rein in Mandarin in a classroom, he is far more eloquent and comfortable than when making a speech in his unsteady English at an international conference. But that doesn't mean he has no appetite for the international scene. "After I retire," he says, "I don't want to limit myself to Acer or Taiwan. I would like to offer my experience in other areas." That includes developing strategies to upgrade Taiwan's traditional industries and build more of the island's companies into global brand names.

Shih's eagerness to offer counsel was behind his participation in a special advisory panel convened by President Chen Shui-bian after he was elected in March. Led by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Lee Yuan-tseh, the group included business figures who backed Chen in the campaign -- presumably the target of a warning from Beijing that those who supported the new president and his pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) might jeopardize their mainland business activities. In April, when he went on one of his regular visits across the strait, Shih was apparently snubbed by senior officials he would normally have met.

The Acer boss dismisses allegations that he has been blacklisted by Beijing, maintaining that his operations on the mainland are running normally. "I may be one of very, very few entrepreneurs in Taiwan who aren't involved in politics," he insists. "I don't make any political donations. I'm neutral. I support the government [in Taipei], whatever the ruling party. After [Chen] was elected, he asked me to be an adviser. Of course, I couldn't refuse." While some top Acer executives have publicly backed the DPP, Shih insists he does not support Taiwan independence and believes that "business and politics are separate issues."

Less open to misunderstanding is his support for the arts, particularly the renowned Cloud Gate Dance Theater troupe of Ramon Magsaysay Award-winner Lin Hwai-min, which has toured the world while nurturing its Taiwan roots. Shih is attracted to the modern-dance company because, he says, its credentials are similar to Acer's -- both are Taiwan's best at what they do and both are determined to build an international presence. Acer also recently established a Digital Arts Center to help Taiwan's high-tech artists -- all part of what Shih calls "hi touch," or using technology to improve lives and contribute to "cultural enrichment."

When he is not taking his tech-for-good message around the world, the Acer chairman plays golf with friends or jogs. An only child whose father died when he was just three years old, Shih is close to his mother, who lives with him and his wife, Carolyn, an Acer co-founder. They have three grown children, none of whom works at Acer -- by parental choice, so that the company does not get the reputation of being an old-style, family-run enterprise. Little danger of that.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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