Paul Robinson finds an unusual guilelessness in WordPerfect's wealthy chairman.
When a father says to his son, "Get a real job", it is not often that the son goes out and becomes a multi-millionaire, better still, one of the richest men in America.
Yet that is precisely what happened to Bruce Bastian, chairman of WordPerfect Corporation.
WordPerfect is either the top-selling word processor in the world, or one of the top, depending on whose figures you choose to believe. The company remains privately owned and is run from Orem City, Utah. Its founders and bosses, Bruce Bastian and Alan Ashton, are Mormons and run the company very much as a family concern.
However, the youthful information technology industry is about to change. There is considerable interest and speculation on what will happen to companies such as WordPerfect whose spectacular growth has been maintained even in the face of a deep recession on both sides of the Atlantic.
Bastian attended Brigham Young University in Utah where he read music. He got his degree and a teaching certificate and seemed set upon becoming a music teacher. However, on the insistence of his father (a businessman who loved music and used it as a second source of income), who "felt I should do a real job in order to pay the bills", Bastian switched to computer science and obtained a Master's degree - at which point he met Alan Ashton, the professor who supervised his thesis.
It may seem incongruous to find musical accomplishment sitting so happily alongside the arcane technical expertise of a programmer. But Bastian dismisses this, saying that when he was composing he was dealing with a subject which expressed itself in lines of symbols and this was not a long way away from computer programming.
Ashton and Bastian became friends and at the end of the latter's course, when he was looking for a job, he was invited by his professor to embark upon a joint venture. While Ashton continued to teach during the day, Bastian wrote part of the program which later became WordPerfect. When Ashton returned in the evening, he set to work on his part of the project.
Although life was tough in the beginning, "When we made a sale, we got to eat that evening," the enterprise was clearly prospering. Soon they had to hire help to program their software and Bastian was wrenched away from "his baby" and forced to manage people for whom the work was, "just a job". WordPerfect was catapulted into prominence by the rise in personal computing following the launch of IBM's PC. As computers spread into everyday use in homes and offices right across the globe, so the company's fortunes rose.
Without meeting Alan Ashton, it is difficult to evaluate how significant Bastian's role in guiding WordPerfect to the top of the league in information technology was (and is). Still, you reach the strong conclusion that his undoubted resourcefulness was a telling factor in pushing it from a small backwater company in middle America to one of the world's best performing companies.
He accepts, however, that this has not been achieved entirely without cost. He accepts, too, that he has made mistakes - who hasn't? - and it seems, listening to him, that some of the mistakes have arisen from misplaced trust in others. But it was Bastian who first recognised the need for the company to expand on to the international scene, and it was he who built up the contacts and created the international structure - until it grew so large it had to be handled by a veritable army of administrators.
Once that happened, Bastian looked for and acquired new goals. It is this flexibility and adaptability which is one of his strengths. As he explains all this he uses, surprisingly, plain language - not at all the power speak of the boardroom. One of the attractive things about him is that he is obviously not out to impress, to say, "Hey, I'm important, listen to what I have got to say". He is clearly not a man who insists that his way is the only way and so, when he passes to others the things that he has created, he is able to step back and allow them to get on with the job in their own way.
The ability to do this was one of the essential steps along the road from programming (with Alan Ashton) the first version of their word processor to chairman of one of the best known companies in the world. But there is little doubt that Bastian is motivated by challenge and so his taking on different roles in the company has been rewarding both for WordPerfect and for Bastian himself.
He is not a weekend Mormon. He carries his beliefs into the workplace although he is careful not to thrust them down the throats of others (this is borne out by his employees). It is not unnatural for him, he says, to apply his beliefs to business practice. He says, we don't like to be taken advantage of and we don't like to take unfair advantage. In the end, he says it is a question of doing what is best, "and that's a real hard call".
The Mormon culture may have been subsumed into the WordPerfect culture but Bastian explains that the company has staff all over the world and that each office around the world is informed by the culture of the people who work there. Bastian says he can see no conflict between being a good businessman and being a religious person in any faith.
Bastian's capacity to detach himself from projects which he has personally nurtured is a quality that he cannot afford to lose given the company's future intentions; when rather than if - as it must surely happen - his company goes public. Bastian's role is bound to change enormously. But you get the impression that this is a change for which he is already, emotionally and intellectually, well-prepared.
While Bastian is modestly enjoying the successes of his company, he is not above deriding some of the competition. He is dismissive of the Harvard business type whom he sees as stupid - only interested in "getting in, making a buck and getting out". No one could be further removed from such a type than Bastian. He is a man very concerned with endurance - with the long term - and because of this WordPerfect has been able to weather storms which have caused similar companies to tumble down the stock market.
Bastian once said that he thought that he would be in real trouble if the company grew beyond 100 employees.
Now, with the company's workforce exceeding 5,000, he is conscious that he has an entirely different challenge in keeping the team motivated.
"You have to motivate them by being motivated yourself," he says. Which is not to say that Bastian ignores the encouragement of profit-related bonuses, health care packages and other such gimgaws. In due course, he goes on to explain, he will motivate staff with stock options and other such incentives which traditionally make up the business remunerative package.
He is a technical man rather than a marketing man - he inclines to look down on marketing, although I once caught him giving a marketing speech to an assembly of business men - and the company tends to be led by technical innovation rather than by market response - which is not always to its advantage.
This was starkly illustrated a couple of years ago when the company was led down the OS/2 (an IBM operating system) route - together with many other illustrious companies, Lotus among them - only to find that the market had taken a completely different course. "Oh we're gullible," admits Bastian almost light-heartedly but it is clear that the event rankles, particularly since it allowed his competitor, Microsoft, to steal a march of over a year on WordPerfect with the launch of its word processing software, Word for Windows.
Bastian is dismissive of some of the competition which he accuses of being slick and glib and marketing inferior products well. WordPerfect, he maintains, has better products even if it might not market them as efficiently.
He impresses as a man without guile - not an unintelligent man, nor a man unguarded in the implications of what he is saying. Moreover, it may be this guilelessness which leads him to say things which are not particularly flattering. He attempts to conceal his competitiveness but admits that he is a fighter and wants to win, which is strange as he also admits, "I was never an athlete - when I play golf, I don't care whether I win or not."
Bruce Bastian is unashamedly emotionally attached to the WordPerfect Corporation and this emotional attachment seems to pervade the entire company. And, unlike many men in similar positions, he displays none of the raging egotism, the domineering presence or aggressiveness of many of the other "personalities" in the computer industry. Yet he declares himself a fighter and he manifestly wants to win his company's battles. He has the pride of a founding father, continually refering to it as "my baby".
When Bastian and Ashton launched the company nobody who was lending money at the time believed in what they wanted to do. Later, they were able to finance the growth of the company from their own resources and relished the independence that a privatelyowned company provided. This independence of action allowed them to take strategic decisions which were not based on short-term profits. Furthermore, it allowed Bastian to indulge his charitable instincts and to do so anonymously.
For Bastian, the popular notion of capitalism is wrong. It is not right, he says, to make money out of money - although he confesses to having had to do it. To invest, he says, £100 in the hope that it will in a short time turn into £200 is wrong - but to invest your money to develop something on a long-term basis is right. This, together with the independence factor, has encouraged Bastian to preserve the private ownership of WordPerfect. However, during our interview he suggested that the company would, perhaps quite soon, be floated on the stock market.
Bastian says that life must be difficult for his children - whom he admits to spoiling - because they are the sons of a rich man. Clearly it must be the sort of difficulty that many kids would relish. He regrets that in his home town his four sons do not have the anonymity which most children enjoy and which is often an important part of growing up. He wishes that he could be more anonymous himself and does not like the fact that he is a well-known figure in Orem, Utah.
Bastian's hopes for his children lean towards leaving them a large enough cash legacy for them never to have to worry about money. In this his instincts are in tune with those of the majority of parents - including his own father.
Bastian says that if one of his sons wants to be an artist, then he will not have to worry about supporting himself; if another wants to be a teacher then he can do so and not be concerned about making real money. Ironically, it was the challenge of making enough money that spurred Bruce Bastian to found the WordPerfect Corporation.
For Bastian, the trappings of wealth have little significance. He is, he says, embarrassed to tell me that he is on the Forbes 400 list of the richest men - something I already knew. He admits that he started WordPerfect to make money - but not the sort of money that he has subsequently acquired. It is not that he does not enjoy the money, or at least what it can buy, it is rather that it is an intrusion into his privacy, something that provokes a curiosity in others who want to see what this multi-millionaire is really like.
There are times when Bruce Bastian becomes querulous, even defensively argumentative in putting forward his beliefs. It is almost as if good manners prevented him from thumping the desk (he lightly taps it from time to time to punctuate his points) to force you to accept the ideas he puts forward. He is both insistent and persistent at the same time.
In the end you get the impression from Bastian that the money is really not that important - an attitude that only the rich can afford. But what is obviously important to him is success. He freely admits to mistakes, but it is evident that there have not been enough of them to impede the WordPerfect Corporation's onward march. He remains, above all, not merely highly successful but a likeable man.
1948 Born Idaho
1973 Moved to Utah to read for BA in music at Brigham Young University
1976 Began Master's degree in computer science at BYU
1977 WordPerfect Corporation founded unofficially while Bastian worked on Master's thesis
1979 Bastian joined forces with Alan Ashton
1980 WordPerfect version 1.0 released
1982 WordPerfect for PC computer released; revenue stood at $1 million, 600 employees
1987 Number of users of WordPerfect passed one million; revenue stood at $100 million
1991 WordPerfect user base in excess of 8.5 million; revenue stood at $532 million
1992 Board of directors restructured and increased from three to five. Bastian is chairman of the board and Ashton corporate president.