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ORANGE COUNTY AT WORK: CAREERS, COMPANIES, CORPORATE LIFE : 'Nice Guys' at AST Planning for the Long Haul : 'Not Just Here to Make Money Fast,' Chief Says

May 03, 1987|CARLA LAZZARESCHI | Times Staff Writer

From the beginning--a kitchen table in a dinky Irvine apartment 6 1/2 years ago--the three founders of AST Research vowed that they would be equal partners in their new electronics business. It was a pledge easier made than executed.

Within months, and solely to satisfy the requirements of incorporation, the three were forced to choose a president. After stewing a long while over the undemocratic implications inherent in the selection, they took the easy way out and drew straws.

The winner, in what today is considered a brilliant stroke of matchmaking by the gods, was Safi Qureshey, a quiet, introspective engineer who functions as much as AST's chief philosophical officer as its president.

To many among Orange County's high-tech community, Qureshey has come to symbolize the aggressive, yet dignified business philosophy for which AST's founders have become best known.

"More than anything, they have given Orange County a business soul. . . ," said Joel Klotkin, West Coast editor for Inc. Magazine and a frequent participant in seminars for young entrepreneurs. "They don't have a hit-and-run business philosophy. They're not fast-track Orange County types. They are humane and genuinely nice people."

Looks Part of Guru

A Pakistan native and practicing Muslim, Qureshey (pronounced "ke-RE-shey") even looks the part of the intellectual guru.

Slight and bearded, the 35-year-old Qureshey methodically brings his fingertips together as he explains the business philosophy and goals that have guided AST to $175 million a year in sales in just six years.

"We have a very long-term view of our company and the business we're in," he says in a slight British accent. "We're not a flashy company, but we are aggressive. We are not just here to make money fast and get out."

Still, the three founders, who also include engineering vice president Albert Wong, 37, and marketing and sales vice president Tom Yuen, 35, have been handsomely rewarded for their efforts.

The big break came in mid-1981, about a year after AST was founded as a high-tech consulting business. According to company lore, the trio--all engineers and former employees of Orange County high-tech companies--had reached the end of a consulting job and were casting about for their next challenge.

A news item about IBM's pending introduction of its first personal computer had caught Yuen's attention, and he proposed that the company try to develop products that would work with the new computer. In early November, just 10 weeks after IBM unveiled what has today become the world's most popular personal computer, AST introduced its first "turbocharging" accessory to improve the PC's performance. Dozens of products followed, including the industrywide best seller SixPak, which adds six new functions to the PC.

AST's ride on the IBM jet stream lasted until mid-1986, when the computer giant decided to move into AST's basic product line, landing hard on the company's most popular product, SixPak. Within months SixPak sales, which once had accounted for more than 60% of AST's revenue, slowed to a trickle and profits plunged.

For the first nine months of the 1987 fiscal year ending June 30, sales were $142.8 million, about 8% above the year-earlier period. Profits were $10.2 million, about 56% below the comparable fiscal 1986 period.

To regain sales momentum, AST introduced accessory lines for Apple and Digital Equipment Corp. computers and, most recently, started selling its own personal computer system.

Analysts, who remain lukewarm about the company's chances of cracking the IBM-dominated personal computer business, are expecting revenue for the fiscal year ending June 30 to be in the $200-million range.

The upheaval, the most dramatic ever for the young company, has taken its toll on the founders. Close friends say Qureshey, in particular, was racked with guilt last year when the company laid off several dozen workers following IBM's move onto its turf.

"A lot of successful people aren't nice," observes Richard Cortese, a confidant of Qureshey and until recently chairman and chief executive of Alpha Microsystems in Santa Ana. "Safi reeks of integrity and honesty. And to him that's more important than being right on any particular question."

The three are also rare among high-tech entrepreneurs for shunning many of the trappings of quickly attained wealth--they are each worth in excess of $50 million--and power. Although each drives a luxury car--Qureshey's is a Porsche--executive "perks" are limited to parking spaces near the front door of their Irvine headquarters and first-class seats on international flights.

In fact, the founders have tried to keep a close-knit feeling among employees with once-a-month T-shirt days, potluck lunches and occasional companywide egg-and-pancake breakfasts featuring the trio and other senior management behind the grill.

"It's not a power mentality," says one high-ranking employee. "A lot of young people who have done well in the microcomputer business have chosen to be more flamboyant. Some have remained more humble."

Qureshey credits the shared Eastern cultural background--Yuen and Wong are Hong Kong natives--as well as the equally divided power within the company, for AST's self-effacing management style.

"The larger we grow the more we recognize that each of us could not have accomplished what AST has as individuals," he explains. "The challenge as we become larger and more successful is to suppress the ego."

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