"From my heart," says Charles Chung in flat tones, "I hate computers." It is a startling confession from a man who not long ago took the helm as general manager of Acer Australia, not to mention a man who has dedicated the last 12 years of his life to rising swiftly through the IT ranks.
But if nothing else, Charles Chung is honest. It is a legacy of his Taiwanese upbringing that not even a two-year stint in South Africa and a three-year exile in Singapore could knock out of him. "It's the dynamics and the overall speed that attracted me to the IT industry, not the technology, even though I know the technology quite well," he says.
"I remember when I bought my first computer for university. Back then it was mainly for homework - my university put a lot of emphasis on computer stuff even though I was majoring in management. They made us run all these statistics and simulations through the system, but the screen resolution was so bad that every time I sat in front of it for 30 minutes my eyes would get really tired and my head would start spinning. I think this impaired my memories of computers forever. I do love using computers to resolve issues and I'm very skilful at that, but I don't want to get stuck on them all day, every day, like a techhead."
When posed with the suggestion that his rise to senior management over 12 years is a noteworthy achievement, Chung responds with a shameless but humble "thankyou". He has worked hard to reach his current position and is not afraid to say so. After finishing his marketing degree in Taiwan, and his MBA in the US in 1988, Chung entered the IT industry via Cirtec, the Taiwanese subsidiary of Acer. "Back in 1988, computers were the booming industry," he says.
"There was so much new knowledge and so many new sales techniques to be developed. The dynamics of IT was the drawing card. If you get into an old industry like car manufacturing there is such a rigid hierarchy: You have to be in the organisation for more than 10 years before you can move up the ranks. This was not an attractive notion for me and one I was keen to avoid. Within IT, promotion is merit based, if you have the skills you can move up the corporate ladder quite quickly."
Moving seems to be one of Chung's favourite pastimes, even though he says he's settled down since moving to Australia.
"At one stage I was regional marketing manager for Southern Africa. I was travelling so much I didn't even have time to claim my travel expenses," he laughs. "The position covers all the countries south of the Sahara desert, so you can imagine how big it is - I used to go all over Kenya, Nigeria, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. When I finally got to the end of the year and added up all my expenses, the bill came to about $40,000. My wife was very mad."
At the mention of Africa Chung diverts, distracted by the enticement of a volatile environment. "Africa was a very unique experience for me," he says. "Some things I describe you could just laugh about now but they are really quite horrible." With a mixture of incredibility and glee Chung recalls how a thief pursued by police ran out in front of his car on the way to work one morning.
"He was right in front of me, about a metre from the bonnet, and the police were just pointing a gun at him. I had absolutely no idea what I should do - whether I should duck my head under my seat or what? So I was stuck sitting there for about 10 minutes while the police made sure the guy wasn't armed. Finally they cornered him in a building at the side of the road and bundled him into a police car."
Chung says the uptake of technology since the fall of Apartheid has been aggressive in South Africa but white rule has set the country back. "Even during Apartheid all the big corporations managed to import IT equipment and know-how, but it had to be smuggled in via other countries," he explains. "For example, they would set up a branch in the UK, export out of the UK into Botswana, which is to the north of South Africa, and then transport it over the border into South Africa. They used these elaborate transport set ups to disguise and get around the embargos and regulations." He feels that Africa's biggest challenge now is adopting new and suitable practices along with the technology.
After Africa came a three-year stint in Singapore, a city which Chung describes as "a nice garden. Singapore is like water so clean you can't find the fish," he says with earnestness. "Everyday you wake up knowing that nothing abnormal will happen, everything will go exactly according to what the Government plans."
When asked how Australia measures up against the world, Chung names America as its closest parallel. "In terms of complexity, channel structure and the way they conduct business, the Australian market is very similar to the US, the only difference is the scale," he says. "The small market impacts the level of resources which can be put into each vendor's sale and each reseller's sale. In turn, this has forced people in Australia to think of innovative ways of doing business."
The aspect of Australia which Chung truly revels in is the accessibility of nature, but it's the "damnable computers" that keep him from enjoying more of it.
"When they were inventing all this technology they said it would make our lives easier. All it did in reality was make the working day longer," he says indignantly. For all his criticism of IT however, Chung has no intention of changing careers and when tentatively asked about the possibility of him following his predecessor Patrick Lin to America, he responds only with "why not?"