Yurie founder chases dreams Technology: Jeong H. Kim emigrated from South Korea and dreamed of owning his own company. He just sold it for $1 billion, but his dreams aren't over.

April 30, 1998|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Over the past three days, Jeong H. Kim has come to learn a simple truth: When one of the biggest telecommunications companies in the world pays $1 billion for your start-up firm, everyone takes notice.

On Monday, Kim, the 37-year-old chairman and chief executive officer of Yurie Systems Inc., sold the Landover-based telecommunications equipment company he founded to Lucent Technologies Inc. Lucent paid a premium for the rapidly rising Yurie, pushing the value of Kim's share to more than $500 million.

And now, reporters, acquaintances and investors throughout the United States and his native Korea want a moment of his time. He said he had 90 messages on his voice-mail on Monday and 140 messages on Tuesday.

Many of these callers, he said, are missing the real importance of the Lucent-Yurie marriage. "People are focusing on the financial side, but I'm not," he said.

What has Kim excited is the prospect of joining an industry power such as Lucent, where he will oversee the company's key phone-company markets.

"I'm just so psyched," he said. "I get to play in the major league.

"The end game here, if there is an end game, is to influence the way telecommunications technology is getting used. That can be done better with Lucent than with tiny little Yurie."

This focus on achievement is nothing new to Kim, an earnest, intense man who has pushed himself from one goal to the next. But those who know Kim say his drive is leavened by professionalism and politeness.

"Jeong is a natural leader and a person who doesn't forget that he came up the hard way," says R. James Woolsey, a member of Yurie's board and a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. "He's not the kind of executive who uses people."

Kim, born in Seoul in 1960, grew up in a South Korea that had yet to experience the miraculous transformation that turned the war-ravaged country into an economic power.

Kim said he wished he could remember more about his native land, but he does retain memories of a frayed nation. "I saw poverty everywhere," he said.

In 1975, when Kim was 14, his father, a former military officer, moved the family to Odenton in order to accept a job offer.

At Old Mill High School in Millersville, Kim was teased for his thrift-shop wardrobe and, occasionally, about his ethnicity. He found himself in a sometimes-awkward outsider's position when acrimony between black and white students ran high.

"I tried to stay straight and avoid most of the problems," he said.

He threw himself into his schoolwork and won admission to the Johns Hopkins University. Scholarships helped pay for his expensive private education, but Kim found his own way to cut the high cost of college -- he graduated in three years, with honors.

While in college, Kim took time from his academic explorations of electrical engineering and computer science to pursue a dream: owning his own company. He joined a computer start-up called Digitus Corp. and became a part owner. The project enjoyed some early success, but folded a few years after he graduated.

Kim then joined the Navy, entering the elite, closely knit world of the fast-attack nuclear submarine officer corps.

Kenneth D. Brody, another member of Yurie's board and former head of the Export-Import Bank, said this experience offers a clue as to why Kim, unlike some other high-tech entrepreneurs, might be able to make a successful transition from running his own start-up to fitting into a big corporation such as Lucent.

"He's able to exist in order and bureaucracy as well as in chaos, and that's very unusual," Brody said. "He's truly a man for all seasons."

Kim said that, while his service on the USS Norfolk taught the usual military lessons of teamwork and discipline, it also instructed him in the importance of surprise. "The surface ship does not know you're there until it's hit," he said.

Kim founded Yurie in 1992. He and his wife, Cynthia, have two daughters; the company is named after the elder child.

The firm started by trading on Kim's military experience, supplying the U.S. armed forces with communications equipment for such undertakings as the international peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. He soon realized that the Pentagon wasn't the only market for faster communications.

"Believe it or not, the military environment and the commercial environment are not very different" in their communications needs, he said.

In approaching the red-hot civilian communications market, the stealth ethos of the submarine came in handy.

"We worked in silence for a long time. Then when we hit the market, we hit it hard," he said. "We didn't want competitors to know we were working on something useful until it was too late. And it worked."

Pub Date: 4/30/98

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