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Skyrocketing growth spells new challenges for Wang

Dr. An Wang likes to joke about doubling his work force 30 years ago -- when he took on a part-time assistant. Today, as founder of a computer company whose work force has doubled to 14, 000 in the last two years, he likes to toy with the idea of raising the firm's 1990 revenue goal from $5 billion to $10 billion -- as if the computer business was growing like Chinese bamboo.

Actually it is, and the bow-tied, Chinese- born "Doctor" Wang can claim more than enough credit for it. As a Harvard graduate student in 1951, he sold a computer memory invention to IBM for $500,000 and used the cash to start an office-automation empire that has made him the emperor of the Route 128 high-technology firms around Boston.

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Preparing for the paperless age, Dr. Wang's word-processing (WP) inventions will continue to lock horns with IBM for the next decade -- and perhaps win a commanding share of the "WP" market. Wang Corporation is also second to IBM in small-business computers.

The top problem for the Massachusetts company is growth -- too much of it -- which measured 66 percent in 1980, and which executive vice-president John Cunningham hopes to reduce to 40 percent a year. Customer service has not kept pace, and the need for computer software specialists compelled the company to set up Wang Institute, its own graduate school, two years ago.

"Harvard and MIT have their own way of doing things. They are not producing people the industry can use," says Dr. Wang, who is known as "the data bank" among Wang employees for his computerlike memory. "We want workers now."

And he chuckles a bit when he thinks of some Massachusetts computer companies that moved to the "cheap labor" state of North Carolina in the 1970s. "Their workers are 40 percent less efficient and the taxes are only 3 percent less than in Massachusetts. Those companies are sowing the seeds of their own destruction."

Like the practice in Japanese "high growth" firms, Wang carries a high debt load and is raising its research funding from 6.5 to 8.7 percent of sales. Last year, it recorded $681 million in revenues, ahead of its schedule to reach $1 billion by 1982.

The research boost is needed for new ventures into automation of telephone use, computer graphics, laser printers, and "networking" of office printers, data processing, and word processing. Work is also under way on making the company's own custom integrated circuits.

But hardware is not the area of competition for Dr. Wang. "It's always easier to make the machine than to have a person feel easy with the machine."

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"We consider the computer as a tool, not something to tool and fool with. Design managers have not, up to now, built in enough flexibility, always letting the user say, 'The computer made me do it.' Office equipment needs to make the user feel comfortable."

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