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Charles Ahn doesn't fit the image of the founder of a high-flying startup. Visitors to his office in suburban Seoul won't find him eager to rake in money or strike a deal to impress investors looking for short-term gains. The 40-year-old chief executive of Ahnlab Inc.--the largest and most profitable Internet security company in South Korea--looks at business more philosophically. "Money or fame can't be my objective," says Ahn. "But if you are faithful to your core values, you are bound to make money."
Despite this thoughtful approach, Ahn has made his share of quick decisions over the years. Indeed, he switched from being a medical doctor to a computer programmer to an entrepreneur, all within two years. And he's still working on transforming his company, which he founded in 1995 to make and sell computer programs that fight viruses. Last year, Ahnlab took in $20 million selling security software and earned $7 million, for a profit margin of 35%. It also began exporting its products for the first time to Japan, China, and Malaysia. This year, the company, which employs 250, will concentrate on boosting sales in Japan, the world's No. 2 Internet security market after the U.S. Ahn's goal: to expand Ahnlab by more than tenfold in four years.
Ahn is already a legend in Korea's startup pantheon. His company became profitable despite its policy of handing out free online antivirus programs to individual users. Anti-virus software provides 80% of Ahnlab's revenues, but Ahn only charges corporate clients. Ahnlab's initial public offering last year on Seoul's Kosdaq exchange raised $36 million. Of course, Ahn could have made more if he had followed his bankers' advice and gone public in 1999, at the height of the tech boom. But he sensed the bubble would burst. "I don't want investors in my company to be hit later and my employees borrowing to take up share offers and ending up with a mountain of debt," Ahn said at the time.
A medical doctor who won a professorship at 27, Ahn started handing out antivirus software as a hobby in 1988. When his free services became popular, he formed Ahnlab in 1995. After earning an Executive Master's in Technology Management in 1997 in a program sponsored by University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering and its Wharton School of Business, he stopped doctoring patients to doctor computers full time. Now, Koreans are watching to see if this star entrepreneur can turn Ahnlab into a global player.