Safi Qureshey is alone at the top of AST Research Inc., the swashbuckling Irvine computer clone maker that was started by three co-founders, who were dubbed the Three Musketeers. After the departures of co-founder Albert Wong in 1988 and the recent ouster of Thomas Yuen, Qureshey will lead Orange County's largest computer company through the industry's toughest price war to date. He talked with Times staff writer Dean Takahashi about his plans for the company and the difficult parting with Yuen.
You've heard AST described in terms of a rags-to-riches story and the founders described as the Three Musketeers. What is it about AST that still makes it seem like a fairy-tale company?
Every company has a character of its own that is the mark of that company. If there is a continued fairy-tale aspect of AST's story, it is that when I travel in different parts of the world, people think, because we are a successful computer company, we must be located in Silicon Valley. I say no, we are located in Silicon Beach. Southern California is not known as a high-tech mecca, but we grew up here. And I think our growth despite the recession gives us a fairy-tale image. I think these aspects will continue to give us a kind of uniqueness beyond the Three Musketeers image.
You've been meeting with employees for the first time since Tom Yuen resigned from the company. What have you been telling them?
One of them asked me about layoffs, and what would a (proposed AST manufacturing) plant in Europe do for the jobs in the United States. I said the way to protect against cutbacks in different parts of the work force is for us to continue to grow. If we continue to grow, then the European plant could take care of European needs and it should still not affect us here.
Did they ask why Yuen left the company?
People are pretty mature on that point. They did not feel a need to discuss the past that much. Tom made a significant contribution at AST. Albert also made a significant contribution before he left. But from my point of view, there is no value for AST in discussing the situation in detail.
Yuen's departure has been characterized in different ways, and some people have very harsh opinions. What happened?
I think people will continue to characterize it 10 different ways. If you look at it from the company's point of view, the board of directors made a decision to move forward with a single chief executive and not look back. It was their recommendation. I do not have much to add.
Where is the computer industry going today, and what is your position in it?
Our industry is at a stage where we had expected it to be. In an industry that has grown so rapidly, with millions of units being sold a year and hundreds of companies joining in the competition from the smallest garage shops to IBM, we all knew there was going to be a time when major computer players would go by the wayside. We've been preparing AST for many years, doing some of the things that have become mainstream today. Some of the industry gurus said our upgradeable computer was nothing but a gimmick. We started multitiered distribution channels. In those days, the big players like IBM, Apple and Compaq used to sell only through traditional computer dealers like Businessland, Micro Age, and ComputerLand. But with the non-traditional distributors, we found more markets. Today, you see everyone using all those channels. In 1989, we started a second product line called Bravo because we saw our Premium computers aimed at large customers (and Bravo) would be appealing to people on a different budget. Now other companies have multiple brands, like the auto makers all have more than one brand. We will replace every product we have with something faster, something cheaper.
Some analysts were disappointed that AST seems to be following the lead of competitors like IBM and Compaq, particularly when you delayed your price cuts during the past month.
AST was quiet in the news, but we have inventories, rebates and ways of pushing our product that kept us competitive. We don't believe in making too many price cuts. The last thing I wanted to do with Compaq was get into a media war.
How will you work with the new chairman, Carmelo Santoro?
Carm is an adviser who will assist in those areas where he has expertise. That is the way it is with our whole board of directors. People love to speculate about how things will change. My style will become more obvious to people. We continue to make changes in our management structure, like with our sales consolidation, but probably there will not be anything drastically different.
Among the founders, you were labeled with the nickname as Mr. Outside. How much are you involved in the day-to-day operations?