Cracking Taiwan's cell-phone market takes some doing. "This is not a level playing field," says Joseph Fan, president of upstart Taiwan Cellular Corp. He faces competition from companies backed by AT&T, as well as state-owned monopoly Chunghwa Telecommunications Co. Chunghwa has a lock on fixed-line phones, which makes it impossible for Taiwan Cellular to bundle fixed and mobile services. Yet in three years, Fan, 39, has made Taiwan Cellular the leading mobile-phone operator on the island, with 3.9 million subscribers and $845 million in revenues last year.
Fan, who learned the phone business in Hong Kong, decided to distinguish his company by focusing on connection quality. While cost may be key in Europe or the U.S., Fan believes that in Taiwan, clear connections to enable over-the-phone business transactions are most important. "We are bringing Hong Kong quality to Taiwan," he says. As a result, Taiwan Cellular regularly scores high marks for service in government surveys.
Fan studied electrical and biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California and earned a master's in management from the California Institute of Technology. Then he started out with billionaire Li Ka-shing's Hong Kong-based Hutchison Telecom. In 1993, he jumped to Pacific Electric Wire & Cable Co., Taiwan Cellular's major shareholder. Using his experience bidding for mobile licenses everywhere from India to the Philippines, Fan helped put together the winning bid in Taiwan, working with executives from Pacific Electric and minority partners, such as giant Acer Inc. and U.S. telecom operator GTE Corp.
Taiwan Cellular still is privately held, but investors have given Fan a thumbs-up by boosting the share price of Pacific Electric 34% this year, compared with a measly 4% rise on the overall index. Taiwan Cellular may get spun off; Fan is also plotting the company's Internet strategy, unveiling 1,000 wireless access protocol services for subscribers.
Despite a hectic schedule, Fan finds time for calm: As a student, he covered half his expenses teaching Tai Chi, and now he teaches the ancient art at his daughter's elementary school every other morning. Then he races to the office. "It's 9.7 kilometers," he says, "and I drive fast." Taiwan Cellular's users are glad he does.