2003 Honoree - John Chen

[Note: The following biography was prepared and presented at the 2003 gala by Board Member and KRON TV News Anchor Emerald Yeh.]

Our first honoree grew up in Hong Kong, the son of refugees from Shanghai who left China to escape the communists. He grew up poor but said his family just accepted the struggle. Many other educated families had to start over in Hong Kong too, having left China to avoid communism. From these modest beginnings, John Chen would eventually become CEO of three powerhouse high-tech companies, with his current company Sybase capturing nearly half of China's telecom database market.

John Chen

When I interviewed John Chen in the gleaming new Sybase headquarters in Dublin, I detected two hints from his life story that would foretell his rise to fortune.

First, he has an unflagging upbeat attitude, even when life deals him a blow. And as a teenager, he was a master bridge player.

But back to John's childhood. John Chen described himself as merely a "reasonable" student because he was in the top 10% of his class, not the top 1%.

But that's because everything he truly enjoyed doing was team-oriented… being on the student council, playing guitar in a band… and being on the bridge team. His team represented Hong Kong in the intra Asia tournament. It was not just a matter of playing cards, he said. You had to develop crucial communication skills with your partner, as well as a keen sense of memory, strategy and discipline. It required being able to quickly determine probability and knowing how to play a sequence backwards.

Tough but valuable training, he said. Little did he know how handy those strategic skills would become one day.

While he was going to school, John's father took odd jobs at factories and shipping companies, working two jobs at a time, while going to night school to learn English. The family lived in a one-bedroom apartment. And when John was 7, his five-year-old brother developed a high fever, went to a hospital and died on the bus ride home in his mother's arms.

It's hard to imagine how a family overcomes such a tragedy, but John managed somehow to keep an optimistic outlook on life. He said those early years of being poor stayed with him and taught him a valuable lesson--- that anything can happen… either way. When you're up on top, he says, you have to work hard to stay up there. It's a long way down… and it could happen. Same thing when you're at the bottom looking up. If you put your wits to it, with hard work and some luck, you have a shot at making it.

Coming to America for school, John was barely able to converse in English, but he graduated from Brown University with a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering with Magna Cum Laude honors. The next year, he received his Master of Science degree in electrical engineering from California Institute of Technology.

That year, 1979, he began his 13-year career at Unisys/Burroughs in Pasadena where he held a variety of engineering and management positions. It was here he would have one of those defining moments in his career that told everything about his character and attitude. For it was here that he encountered prejudice.

As an engineer, and a very good one, he never saw Asians being promoted to management… even though, he said, "we were the ones in the lab, designing, creating, de-bugging, doing the work." When he asked a manager why Asians in the company were being passed over for promotions, he was shocked when the manager told him point blank that Asians just aren't presentable. This was in the mid 80's.

The manager told John that these higher positions required negotiating, interacting and making presentations before the big guys and that Asians would not present themselves well. Hearing this answer, John fought the temptation to go back to Hong Kong. Instead, he decided to overcome this stereotype, so on his own nickel, he took public speaking, paying consultants thousands of dollars--- not a small sum of money for an engineer.

He was horrified when he first saw himself on tape, but he worked at his style and then showed his results to that manager, who suggested he join Toastmasters next. He did, and shortly after, started getting promotions, and became a plant manager. Among those who ended up working for him was that manager who first told him Asians weren't "presentable."

Rather than harbor bitterness toward that man or the situation, John credits the incident for the beginnings of his rise to success. "Had I not been passed over, I wouldn't have taken it on as a challenge," he said.

John went on to hold several key positions at Unisys/Burroughs including VP and general manager of the $500 million Unisys Convergent UNIX Systems Group.

John then joined Pyramid Technology Corporation, a high-end UNIX-based operating system company, in 1991 as its executive vice president. Two years later, John became its president, chief operating officer and board member. When Pyramid was sold to Siemens Nixdorf Informationsysteme, John became one of the first Asian Americans on its executive board of directors and then was elevated to president and CEO of Siemens Nixdorf's $3 billion dollar Open Enterprise Computing Division. This job took him to Munich.

Then came a career move that (brought him back to this country and) established his reputation as an engineer of a different kind - the engineer of a dazzling turnaround. We're talking about Sybase now. The publisher of Forbes wrote, "Speaking of tough rescues - how would you like to jump in and go mouth-to-mouth on this dog?"

The database software company was in deep trouble. Its books had been fudged and instead of its first annual profit since 1994, it posted a $55 million dollar loss. Workers started abandoning the company like a sinking ship. Revenues plunged for four straight years. The influential Gartner Group put Sybase's probability of death at 70 percent. "The vultures were flying over to buy the company cheap. It was an ugly situation," as John put it.

That was in 1997. Why would a successful CEO leave his position to take over such a "dog"? (as Forbes described it). For one thing, John wanted to bring his family home from Europe. His wife was pregnant with their fourth child, and, by now, they had the whole getting-to-the-hospital routine and line-up of doctors all set up in the East Bay.

Also, he saw this as a no-lose situation. Everyone knew how broken Sybase was, so expectations were low. If he failed, the thought would be, well, even John couldn't fix it. At first, no one returned his calls, the media ignored his views and opinions, and investors nearly threw him out the room.

But John pulled it off. Sybase re-invented itself and posted 19 consecutive profitable quarters, made significant acquisitions and launched successful subsidiaries.

When I interviewed John a few weeks ago, Sybase's stock just hit a 52-week high and the company had more than tripled its worth over the last six years.

Forbes magazine was now saying, ""John Chen brought Sybase back from the dead." As part of its second life, Sybase is doing business in China, accounting for 45% of China's telecom database market. 58% of all securities companies on Wall Street run on Sybase. It has 70 offices in 33 countries and revenues were $830 million dollars in 2002.

John Chen's principle guidelines can be summed up this way, work hard, be analytical, but decisive, be upbeat and seek greater challenges, and be loyal to your fellow workers. He has people who've been working for him for 18 years. They've followed him from company to company. Two of his engineering heads have been with him since they came out of grad school together 24 years ago.

John's educational experience has had an impact on him in several ways. For one thing, it is reflected in his giving. John has been a supporter of the Dragon Fund, which raises money to improve education for women and girls in rural China. Its goal is to provide scholarships for 1000 girls in China. He says he especially wants to help poor children in China go to school. "A lot of where I am today came from my schooling," he said.

He also likes to help poor and abused children in general. Last year, Sybase sponsored the Sybase Big Apple Classic LPGA golf tournament in New York to raise money for Save the Children programs in more than 40 countries as well as 19 states in this country.

John is a leading contributor and fund-raiser for a $40 million campaign for the Chang-Lin Tien Center for East Asian Studies at UC Berkeley. He is also Vice Chairman of the Committee of 100, an organization co-founded by I.M. Pei, Yo-yo Ma and 40 other distinguished Chinese-Americans to foster better understanding between U.S. and China and Chinese-Americans with the American people.

As for his job at Sybase, his task not complete. While he re-established and stabilized the company, John does not consider this a complete win. The company's only 50% of where he wants it to be. He feels the best is yet to come.

Looking back at obstacles he's faced, including prejudice, his matter-of-fact view is that it's everywhere. It's how you deal with it. So yes, I'm different, he says, but I'm proud of it. And that explains the confidence behind this comment he made to Oracle's Larry Ellison. "You can't be better at the Art of War because you read the translation. I read the original."

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