Working and Living Against a Deadline
Thomas Yuen seems to have it all: a 9,000-square-foot home in a gated community in Newport Beach and a net worth of perhaps $70 million as co-founder of computer company AST Research Inc.
But as he sits by a huge, calming aquarium with multicolored fish in his corporate office in Irvine, he says he would give it all to have healthy kidneys again.
In fact, Yuen said his drive to start a small computer company in 1980 and build it into a Fortune 500 firm was to save his life.
“It was devastating when I was diagnosed and told my kidneys were going to fail,” he said. “It told me that I needed to accomplish something within 10 to 15 years to free myself financially.”
Yuen was born in the Year of the Dragon in 1952. Yuen, the son of a chauffeur, emigrated from Hong Kong as a poor student in 1970. He studied at Orange Coast College, became an engineer, and caused a stir in his traditional Chinese family when he married a Japanese woman, Misa, who was also studying at the school. Yuen says the marriage created cross-cultural pressures for him to succeed.
In 1973, doctors told Yuen that he eventually would have to undergo dialysis at a cost to him of $15,000 a year. As an engineer at Hughes Aircraft Co., he made $12,000 a year.
Then, in 1974 he was laid off. He rebuilt a career as an engineer in the minicomputer industry. But the doctor’s diagnosis and his slow progress up the corporate ladder only convinced Yuen that he needed to take control of his destiny.
“Those two things, the layoff and my health condition, were the most significant things forcing me to excel in business organizations,” he said. “I also looked at the annual report of a company where I was working one day. I saw the faces of the 50 to 100 vice presidents, and they were almost all white. That’s when I decided to start my own company.”
What happened next has been well chronicled. He teamed up with co-worker Safi Qureshey and former roommate Albert Wong and co-founded AST Research in 1980. The company rode on the coattails of the IBM personal computer revolution. Last month, AST, with $696.7 million in sales for 1991, was ranked on the Fortune 500 for the first time.
About the time the company launched its first computer product, Yuen began undergoing dialysis several times a week. Since then, the condition has nearly taken his life twice.
The near-death experiences have changed Yuen. He wants to spend more time with his wife and daughters, Jennifer, 11, and Connie, 7, and he constantly searches for unorthodox cures for his debilitating kidney-related ailments, such as a near-arthritic stiffness in his joints and hearing loss.
He has also taken a keen interest in biotechnology, the field that he hopes will one day discover a cure for his condition. He has tried to postpone an operation for a kidney transplant because he sees it as a last resort.
“I’m not fooling myself. I’m not scared of surgery. I’ve gone through it without anesthesia and seen my blood shoot out at the ceiling. I’ve had a significant financial miracle with my company,” he said. “The way I see it, I need a second miracle in the medical field.”