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Profile: Tech guru Fred Lin of Taiwan

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-10-16

When people in the computer industry talk about Mr Fred Lin, it's almost always with the kind of hushed reverence reserved for notable spiritual gurus. A guru, in fact, is precisely what the Taiwan-born engineer is - except that his realm is in the temporal. He traverses the world teaching young entrepreneurs how to build better companies, young managers how to be more enterprising, investors how to be more venturesome, and nonprofit organisations how to raise and manage their funds more wisely.

He's an exponent of what Mr Lin calls, in his soft, mellifluous voice, the "DNA of Corporate Management."

"But I'm not a lotus-eater," he told The Straits Times on the sidelines of the Global Entrepolis@Singapore conference. "When I speak, I speak forthrightly, and I speak from experience."

Should that we all have such experience. After graduating from Taiwan's Chiao Tung University, he concentrated on research and development at several technology companies. Intuitively anticipating the computer revolution of the 1970s, he segued into the cyber field, eventually becoming one of the founders of Acer, Taiwan's most successful computer manufacturer. He was primarily responsible for developing Acer's laptop machines. Then, on the basis of the vast knowledge he'd gained in Taiwan, he decided that he should transform himself into a management teacher.

"When you build a company, you don't merely create a product," he said, speaking in translated Mandarin. "It's like the chime of a cuckoo clock. You're not creating the chime in order to create the clock. It's the cuckoo clock that needs to be first-rate in the first place."

So what does the "DNA of corporate management" mean? That's a metaphor, in Mr Lin's view, for open systems that encourage innovation. Specifically, he's referring to countries that actively promote corporate and individual innovations - the United States, Taiwan, Britain, and China, in that order. These countries not only have "multi-element societies" but also a driving emphasis on higher education, especially in technology.

But by these criteria shouldn't Singapore qualify as an innovative society?

Mr Lin smiles quietly. The pause gives the reporter a chance to observe him more closely. Mr Lin is a slim man, almost ascetic, with short white hair that he brushes back. Some might call his face cadaverous, but it's the sort of thinness that undoubtedly comes from leading a disciplined life. His spectacles give him an inevitable professorial look.

"Singapore is too rigid," he says, presently. "Just take the case of university education. China's universities have integrated their research and entrepreneurship courses - which are heavily useful for students wanting careers in business - than institutions in Singapore. Things are too compartmentalised in Singapore. The desire to innovate comes from a society's culture and environment. The culture needs to be an enabling one, one that accepts entrepreneurship. A government doesn't have to get into micromanagement, but its role should be to establish a larger climate that encourages individual initiative and entrepreneurship."

"Thus, even if an individual has tremendous self-confidence, it's difficult for him to take off as an entrepreneur if the right conditions aren't there," Mr Lin added.

What would be Mr Lin's advice to young entrepreneurs? He quickly produced a laptop computer - an Acer machine, what else? - and displayed a PowerPoint presentation.

It projected what Mr Lin calls the "Six Lessons of Success":

1. The entrepreneur must be a continuous self-learning MBA.
2. A company's founder's ability and attitude must be continually evolve as the company grows.
3. Processes, teams, corporate culture and organizations are four key "building blocks" when you want to build a company.
4. Execution through strategy, operations, and people skills are what you need for success.
5. Managers must be held responsible for proper training, product quality, information, knowledge and service management.
6. Scenario planning must continuous process for companies, especially small ones.

Of all these lessons, which one would he emphasize the most?

"Respecting and trusting people," Mr Lin said.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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