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Computer Associates Owner Seeks Higher Profile for Firm : Technology: The company, which is speeding up development of its product line, is little-known outside the industry.

September 13, 1993|EVAN RAMSTAD | ASSOCIATED PRESS

ISLANDIA, N.Y. — Charles Wang doesn't have the star status of some of his peers at the top of the software world.

He's not a multibillionaire like Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates and doesn't crank out jazz CDs for a hobby like Borland International's saxaphone-playing chief executive Philippe Kahn.

"I am not a cult figure," the 49-year-old Wang says, shrugging off the personal obscurity.

But he is very eager to raise the profile of his company, Computer Associates International Inc., especially as it accelerates its development of personal computer products.

The Long Island-based company is not well-known outside the industry despite being the second-largest independent software developer after Microsoft. Its dominant product helps manage the operations of mainframes.

With pride in the PC business built on attention-getting marketing as much as technological achievement, Computer Associates earlier this summer took the unprecedented step of giving away 1 million copies of a new personal finance program.

"What we said was, 'Let us really make a splash, show the world what CA is about. It isn't just mainframe,' " Wang said. "You enjoy a different kind of recognition when you're in that marketplace."

With the program carrying a retail price of about $70, the promotion appeared ludicrous at face value. But it gave Computer Associates a huge client base to which it can market upgrades and other products, key to securing a niche in the competitive field.

Such gusto is characteristic of Wang.

"He's a very strong leader," said Michael Braude, senior vice president of the Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn.-based research and consulting firm. "CA is not a democracy. Charles makes those decisions and sometimes he micromanages. But he makes correct decisions."

Though one of the most prominent Asian-Americans in high technology, Wang says some people think he is related to An Wang, late founder of Wang Laboratories Inc. Charles Wang's last name is pronounced Wong.

In 1976, just a few years out of college, Wang established the U.S. office for a Swiss company called Computer Associates and began selling software that allowed mainframes to sort data better. By developing some programs himself and buying the creations of others, Wang's operation grew enough that he bought out the parent company four years later.

A series of progressively larger acquisitions followed, the largest a $780-million buyout of archrival Uccel Corp. in 1987. The next year, Computer Associates became the first software company to reach $1 billion in sales.

Revenue in its latest fiscal year, ending March 31, was $1.84 billion, up 22 percent from $1.51 billion a year earlier. Wang is particularly proud of the performance because it came without any major acquisitions.

"People say 'Oh, you grew by acquisition,' " he said. "I won't deny it. Of course, we did. But that's not the only piece. And the proof of it was last year with all of the recession things, the leading indicators down, CA grew by more 20 percent."

The company's climb hasn't been steady, however. Its stock, now trading at about $31 per share on the New York Stock Exchange, was pummeled to below $5 in 1991, when Computer Associates failed to meet revenue and profit goals.

More recently, customers have complained that the company unethically raised prices of software it obtained through acquisitions. Wang reined in some sales representatives and last fall threw out a pricing scheme tied to mainframe's power, a move followed by other software companies, notably IBM.

"I think CA's lack of finesse has cost them in the customer relations arena," said Mark Demboski, general manager of International Computer Negotiations, a Winter Park, Fla.-based firm that issued a study this summer listing complaints of some Computer Associates customers.

Wang said the study had many inaccuracies but declined further comment.

Part of Wang's drive stems from his childhood escape from China in 1952, several months after his father, who was a Supreme Court justice, left Shanghai after the Communist takeover.

At least two other prominent high-tech CEOs--Intel Corp.'s Andrew Grove and Compaq Computer Corp.'s Eckhard Pfeiffer-- made similar journeys. Grove fled the Communists in Hungary in 1956 and Pfeiffer fled Nazi Germany in 1944.

Wang's father encouraged his three sons to pursue careers in math and science, where language would be less of a burden to a successful career. Only he did, becoming a programmer after graduating from Queens College.

Nearly 30 years later, he views software writing as more art than science.

"Because it's an artistic process, you're never happy and you tinker and tinker," Wang said. "One program I wrote was seven pages and I rewrote it and rewrote it and finally got it down to a half page. Did it really make a difference if it was two pages or three pages? No. But, oh, the challenge of doing it."

But knowing when to quit tinkering and start selling a product is a business skill Wang has since acquired.

"If one of my projects is late here, say I have eight people, I pull two off," Wang said. "Now I got six. It's late again, I pull two more off. I got four. Late, two more, until I'm finally down to the one who probably should have just written it."

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