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Stranded in the U.S. after being cast off by a Taiwanese manufacturer, a keyboard salesman named James Chu struck a bold pact with a rival company and built ViewSonic into the world's leading independent monitor brand.


GOLDSEA | ASIAN AMERICAN RAGS-TO-RICHES SAGAS

THE BIRD BILLIONAIRE

PAGE 1 OF 8

he millions of Asians who have come here during the past century have produced thousands of millionaires -- mostly Chinese Americans -- who have joined the ranks of America's wealthiest citizens. None has built a bigger, more successful company in less time with less capital than a shy immigrant from Taiwan who sometimes has trouble being understood in English.

     In 1986 James Chu moved to the U.S. as the underpaid sales manager of a barely solvent Taiwanese keyboard manufacturer. By October 1987 Chu's salesmanship turned his employer into a huge success. In the process Chu became such a threat to his boss that he was forced to resign.

     It's eight years later. ViewSonic Corporation, the company Chu started with little more than salesmanship, has become America's top independent monitor brand. Its 1996 sales are projected at $400-500 million, three times that of Chu's one-time employer. Little wonder, then, that Chu holds no grudge.

     "I was angry the first few years," Chu says. "As time goes on I am more and more grateful. If he didn't treat me that way, I couldn't be successful."

     His entrepreneurial feat makes Chu the most successful Asian American under the age of 40. What's more, his success in building the ViewSonic brand into the most trusted in the monitor business makes him the man with the best prospects for future growth. Before 2000, Chu reckons, ViewSonic will slip past NEC in total U.S. sales.

     From Los Angeles go east on the Pomona Freeway and get off at the last exit before 57, and you find yourself in an area of boxy, single-level structures bearing the logos of companies like GE, Aiwa and Ingram. The 100,000-square-foot ViewSonic building looks too small for its $309 million in 95 revenues. It is. In April the company will explode into a newly-built 300,000-square-foot structure just down the street.

     A black 500SEL is the make, model and color favored by Asian CEOs in every industrial park in the state. This one's no exception. The gleaming black Benz in ViewSonic's lot crouches with its chrome grill pointing toward the darkened glass of the building's business end. Across the glass is the office of the man who has driven the company to the top of the computer monitor industry.

     James Chu's eyes and round face were made for laughter, though until the past five years they saw little reason for mirth. His movements are brisk, efficient. You shake his hand and sense, in equal measure, his quiet strength and an almost painful shyness. If you didn't already know that he had gotten started in the industry through his salesmanship, you could think he had inherited his position or maybe created it with technical or financial wizardry.

     At the outset getting James Chu to start talking is like pulling teeth. It doesn't help that English is a language he had no reason to practice until the age of 28. He struggles for some words, leaves out others. Even when he does succeed in finding just the right words, they're obscured by his clipped, impatient Mandarin accent. "I feel" always sounds like "I fear". For the hapless transcriber, this shapes up to be the interview from hell.

     Then it happens, unexpectedly. About five minutes into the interview Chu suddenly transforms himself into a relaxed, engaging conversationalist. The English doesn't get much better, but now it flows. There are even some happy turns of phrases. This is a man, you sense, with as unlikely a success story as an interviewer could want. The conversation starts after lunch and continues nonstop until we stagger out to powder our noses and find the sea of 100 cubicles nearly emptied of the white-collar staff. Among those remaining is executive secretary Amy Wang, the woman who screens demands on Chu's time from three continents.

[CONTINUED BELOW]




     The future tycoon was born October 23, 1957 to an unpromising family in the small town of Pintong in southern Taiwan. Father Chu Chin-Tsu was an enlisted man in the Nationalist Air Force. Mother Dong Ta Twe was a housewife with a second-grade education.

     "We were not a rich family, definitely not," says Chu. "My mother cannot read a magazine article."

     Chu was the fifth of six children, with three older brothers and a younger sister. His family had moved from mainland China in 1949 with the Kuomingdang to settle in what became an air force enclave. PAGE 2

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“I was angry the first few years. As time goes on I am more and more grateful. If he didn't treat me that way, I couldn't be successful.”




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