When Cher Wang enters a roomful of people, they struggle to contain their curiosity. As Taiwan’s richest woman, founder of two important technology companies, Via and HTC, and a daughter of the island’s most revered tycoon, the late Wang Yung-ching, she is naturally a focus of public attention. But her determination to avoid it has earned her a reputation as shy and secretive.

Only since HTC, the smartphone company she set up in 1997, became a fast-rising star among global gadget makers has the 50-year-old chairman of the company engaged with the public.

Yet it is her ability to put herself in the shoes of the consumer that observers say is one of the biggest factors behind the success of, first, the chipset maker Via, and then HTC, which has made the jump from contract manufacturer to branded vendor. It is a switch that other Taiwan IT companies have struggled to make.

“Cher approaches the business with the eyes of the consumer, because she is not an engineer,” says one executive at T-Mobile, who has worked with HTC. “Often, she instinctively makes the right choices.”

Ms Wang may be reticent in public, but speaking in Via’s swanky Beijing headquarters about her businesses and how she runs them, she is outgoing and cordial. She even asks her staff to treat her guest to the hot sweetened lemon juice she is sipping to soothe a sore throat.

This personal warmth, it becomes clear, is also a secret weapon in her management style. She says one of the most important aspects of how she leads is to ask about the people in her companies: “How do I see their gift and make them successful? If you talk to them, they feel you like them, and you’re really there for them every day.”

In her early years in business, says Ms Wang, she would spend entire nights at work. “I was trying to encourage our research and development staff to stay overnight,” she says. Then she was focused on procurement, product development and marketing, but more recently, when HTC was a new company trying to develop personal digital assistants, she concentrated on building the right team and preparing it for future challenges.

HTC chief executive Peter Chou, for example, was sent on an MBA course at Harvard Business School to prepare him for the role.

Ms Wang became much more closely involved in picking employees: “I will always seek to hire people who can teach me something,” she says. “If they can teach me in a simple way, so I can understand it, then they can do better, because I ask a lot of questions.”

Of the 10 children of Mr Wang, the founder and chairman of Formosa Plastics, Taiwan’s leading petrochemicals group, Ms Wang was not initially the likeliest to have a career in business. Indeed, she started off studying music at University of California, Berkeley – only to switch to economics within days.

“When you are in class and everybody is like a genius but you just like to play the piano, you have to be realistic,” she says. “It’s very important to realise early on what we …don’t have, and focus on what we have. That’s always my attitude.”

While still at college, she procured medical equipment in the US for her father who was establishing what would become one of Taiwan’s leading hospitals.

Then she took up selling computers at a San Francisco trade show on behalf of First International Computer, her sister’s motherboard company. It went so well that the company expanded into making PCs.

When labour costs in Taiwan started to rise, many IT manufacturers in Taiwan brought in foreign workers from south-east Asia. Ms Wang decided on a different strategy: in 1987 she visited southern China for First International Computer as one of the first Taiwanese businesspeople to build a manufacturing base there.

It was the kind of pioneering spirit she was to display when building her own companies. Also in 1987, Ms Wang and her husband Chen Wenchi set up Via Technologies, a chip design house, in Silicon Valley. Five years later they moved the company to Taiwan, the island’s first chip designer.

In 2001, when Via had achieved 40 per cent of the global chipset market, the company was drawn into a legal battle with Intel, which accused it of patent infringement. By the time the case was settled two years later, the fight had halved Via’s market share and shattered the company’s strategy.

Via was forced to diversify. It is now among the world’s leading suppliers of energy-efficient processors. It has also focused much more on China and is trying to build niche markets there by backing fledgling Chinese IT manufacturers and by offering them a platform on which their handsets and netbooks can run.

Ms Wang says she likes to take a controlling stake in companies and to take a long-term view on companies she backs. “If what the CEO is doing is correct, we will still support it even if it’s difficult.”

When she set up HTC, Ms Wang wanted to make PDA phones – mini-computers that can also act as handsets – but there was little interest from engineers and others she needed to recruit. “I wanted to just do PDAs. But it was much easier to hire people if you said ‘we’re going to build notebooks’. So we hired a bunch of people to do notebooks,” she says.

In fact, the PDA idea also failed to catch on with potential customers. But the outlook brightened after 2000, after the company got contracts to make PDAs for Compaq and Hewlett-Packard.

Next, HTC started making customised smartphones running on Windows systems for mobile operators such as Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone. The partnerships saved HTC from the cut-throat competition that other contract manufacturers get caught in when they serve branded handset makers. From there, it was just one step for HTC to become a branded handset maker. Since 2006, the company has been selling smartphones under its own brand. Apart from handsets running on Microsoft, it now also has phones running on Android, Google’s platform.

Although chief executive Mr Chou runs the day-to-day business at HTC, Ms Wang is a hands-on chairman. She talks to him at least once a day. Once a month she visits the company for two days of intensive strategy meetings.

The family home is in California, but Ms Wang estimates that she divides her time roughly equally between the US, Taiwan and China. That means spending a large part of her life on an aeroplane, but she says she enjoys it.

Like most of her siblings, Ms Wang was sent overseas as a high school student and kept in touch with her family through long faxed letters.

Being transplanted to Berkeley at the age of 15 with very little English would have frightened many other Taiwanese girls. But Ms Wang remembers only fun and curiosity. “[Berkeley] was very free and there were a lot of weird but really fun people, so I liked the place,” she says.

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