Fueling an Internet boom Commerce: Ken Bajaj hopes to repeat the success of his former company, I-Net, with AppNet, which aims to steer more business toward the Internet.

August 24, 1998|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

In just a few years' time, Ken Bajaj made a fortune helping companies, small and large, shift from outdated mainframe computer systems to the "client-server" systems that are ubiquitous today in American industry.

So successful was Bethesda-based I-Net Inc., the company Bajaj and his wife founded to aid government agencies and companies with their computer system design needs, that it was bought two years ago this month by computer-services giant Wang Laboratories Inc. for $167 million.

Now Bajaj, a former electrical engineering professor who also worked for Texas billionaire Ross Perot, hopes to replicate that stunning success with AppNet Systems Inc., his new Bethesda-based venture, which he's aimed to ride what he calls the "next paradigm shift" for business: The Internet.

Bajaj, a 56-year-old father of two sons, believes that during the next three to five years, American corporations will embrace the Internet in droves as an indispensable tool for doing business, whether it be ordering parts and supplies from vendors or communicating with workers in far-flung offices or selling products and services directly to an increasingly wired globe.

Garnering business in the burgeoning electronic commerce industry, crows Bajaj, "will be like fishing in the Pacific Ocean."

International Data Corp. agrees. The consulting outfit projects that Internet-related commerce -- people buying goods and services over the Internet -- will grow more than 100 percent and generate $400 billion in revenue by 2002.

Bajaj, who immigrated to the United States from India, has his eye on that pot of gold. The unabashed goal for the venture, he says: build the leading electronic commerce consulting and systems integration outfit in the nation and take it public.

Part of AppNet's strategy is to capture a piece of that volume through its Seattle-based Internet transaction center. AppNet would garner a fee for every electronic commerce its center handles in much the same way banks charge fees for use of their automated teller machines.

Late last month, Golder, Thoma, Cressey, Rauner Inc., a Chicago-based private equity investment firm, backed Bajaj with $100 million in financing to buy up promising Internet service boutiques and operate them under the AppNet umbrella.

Bajaj goes so far as to project that AppNet potentially could generate $1 billion in revenue five years from now. And, he predicts, it will be as well known as Amazon.com, the publicly held online book retailer, which, despite its fame, has yet to post a profit. So who is this self-professed visionary of the wired world?

Until GTCR announced its funding of AppNet, Bajaj and his former company, I-Net, had not received much in the way of coverage from local newspapers or computer industry journals. Coverage was relegated to a few obscure trade publications, such as Federal Computer Week.

Indeed, many Internet experts and information technology consultants had never heard of Bajaj -- or AppNet -- until the GTCR deal was announced July 28.

But that lack of publicity didn't deter GTCR, said Philip A. Canfield, a principal in GTCR, the equity firm backing AppNet.

Canfield says GTCR spent months researching business ventures aimed at grabbing a share of the burgeoning Internet services industry and eventually locked its sights on Bajaj and his vision.

Canfield said Bajaj also has an uncanny sense of what companies will need next in computer technology, is skilled at managing large contracts for complex work, and is a stickler for hiring a first-class bullpen of employees.

Explains Bajaj, "I always hire people smarter than myself, and then give them the more freedom to do what they do best than anywhere else. My philosophy is that if you give really smart people enough responsibility, they will surprise you."

Staffing challenge

Indeed, Bajaj sees AppNet's toughest challenge ahead as finding and hiring the best players in the Internet industry. "I like to surround myself with the best people. That will be a top goal here."

AppNet, which has just 12 employees at its Bethesda headquarters, has already made two acquisitions, and more are forecast in the next month. By the end of September, the company forecasts, it will have 340 employees nationwide, said Julie Colton, marketing services director.

Bajaj says his personal formula for success also includes 15-hour work days.

His career started humbly enough. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a doctorate in electrical engineering and system sciences, he tried his hand at teaching.

Soon, private industry beckoned. After a stint at Washington-based Computer Sciences Corp., Bajaj was hired at computer systems giant Electronic Data Systems Inc., founded by Ross Perot.

It was while working at EDS that Bajaj began to display an acumen for business, and his career, as he puts it, took a pivotal turn when he helped the company land a plum government contract with the Army.

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