From Shanghai to pioneering in high-tech
Lowell, Mass. — To look at An Wang, you'd never know there was a computer slump out there. He sits quietly in the conference room, letting the three other executives answer most of the questions. Which is not to say that he is either reticent or a hands-off kind of manager; rather, that his philosophy is so ingrained at Wang Laboratories that he does not need to be its spokesman.
The Doctor, as he is known, is no stranger to the whims of high-tech. He has been in the business for 35 years. He's a rare breed for the industry: Widely acknowledged for his technological genius, he has also shown the prescience and marketing savvy to stay a few steps ahead of the fast and tricky business. It will take all that skill to steer his company through its present troubles.
Dr. Wang left Shanghai in 1945 to study applied physics at Harvard. He got his PhD in three years, then did postdoctoral work in the Harvard Computational Laboratory. When it became clear the lab would not produce commercial electronics, Wang started his own company in 1951.
In 1955, he patented an inexpensive computer memory, later selling the patent to IBM. A decade later he came out with a desktop computer named LOCI. The clunky-looking adding machine could generate logarithms with a push of a button, making it the forerunner of Wang electronic desk calculators.
When the market for calculators began to collapse in the late '60s, Wang started to move into using programmable calculators in the business environment. In the early '70s, the company started employing the same hardware for a different application: word processing. And the rest, as the 300,000 loyal Wang users will tell you, is history.
The present chapter in company history is difficult to read. But there is fierce faith in the Doctor's leadership.
``People adore the Doctor,'' says Patricia Seybold, a Boston-based consultant, but they don't let their hair down around him. He reportedly shows up at product development meetings unannounced.
``Dr. Wang invigorates people,'' says Peter Brooke, a Wang director since 1965. ``He gives people a fair amount of scope inside the limits he sets.''
The Doctor's Chinese background directs his corporate and personal philosophy. ``Dad's heritage says you should return more to the community than you took from it,'' says his son Fred.
When Wang Labs came to Lowell a decade ago, unemployment was near 15 percent. Now it is about 4 percent, and while Wang does not take credit for all of that reduction, it was a catalyst by drawing suppliers and other high-tech companies to the area.
Wang has donated $2 million worth of equipment and services to the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as $483,000 over four years to the Electronics Education Foundation and $250,000 over five years to the Lowell Plan to continue development of the city.
``There's certainly goodwill toward Wang,'' even after the June layoffs, says Daniel Schay, producing director of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, which is going into its seventh season. ``This theater would not have been in town if not for the spiritual reinvention of Lowell. Wang was a catalyst for that, not just with its money but with its very presence.''
Wang is the largest corporate contributor to the theater, donating about $450,000 this year, or about 3 percent of the group's budget. Wang's troubles have delayed payment of the pledge, Mr. Schay says, but ``there's no doubt in my mind they will follow through.''
The Doctor's personal philanthropy is perhaps even more impressive. In May he donated $4 million to Massachusetts General Hospital. Two years ago he gave the same amount for restoration and funding of the Wang Center in Boston, formerly the Metropolitan Center.
In 1979, he founded the Wang Institute of Graduate Studies, a master's program for software engineers. Some of the 15 to 20 engineers are full-time students; about 60 percent work at Wang and its competitors, like Digital Equipment, Data General, Hewlett-Packard. The Wang family also contributes to the Fairbanks Center at Harvard and the An Wang Graduate Fund at MIT.