Albert Chen, founder and CEO of Telamon Corp., made lots of course corrections during his decades-spanning career. The Taiwan native came to the United States in 1968 at age 25 hoping to land an accounting job. Failing that, he took an almost mind-boggling risk: enrolling in the graduate studies program at Portland State College, in spite of having no scholarship or a thorough grasp of the English language.
Fortunately, perseverance turned out to be a universal language. He won a full-ride scholarship and earned an MBA in mathematics. After a decade at GTE, he founded Telamon in 1985.
Originally, Telamon focused on creating and selling phone systems, but as the telecommunications industry evolved, so did Chen’s company. Today, Telamon has branched into such myriad fields as logistics, medical billing and supply chain management.
Innovation—not to mention rolling with life’s punches—played a huge role in his success.
“The way we innovate is to always ask our customers, ‘What is your problem?’” Chen said. “They describe the problem, then I find a way to solve it. I define that as innovation.”
One recent project illustrates that mentality. Major cell phone providers face a seemingly intractable handicap—when the power goes out, cell towers don’t work. The only way around this is to keep an expensive backup generator on-site, but doing that for every single tower in a vast system is expensive.
So Chen’s company, at the behest of a major telecom firm that wants to remain anonymous, came up with the idea of fitting out cell towers with solar panels and storage batteries.
“We just finished a pilot program in California,” he said.
Telamon doesn’t have an R&D department, but Chen said the innovation bug is infused throughout the staff. There’s a constant drive to improve processes and products—sometimes in one giant leap, but often through endless incremental changes. Anyone can innovate, he said: Just focus on ways to make things simpler.
“A lot of people always say, ‘Tell me what to do and I’ll follow that,’” Chen said. “I think that front-line people should always try to think of the easiest, most efficient way to do something. Do that every day, and that creates more innovation.”
Teams can also develop the mind-set—perhaps even more quickly than individuals. The trick is to put together a diverse group that can examine a problem from different, unexpected angles.
“You need a team from a variety of backgrounds, not necessarily the same discipline,” Chen said. “In a sense, each company is a kind of informal team. It can pick up one subject and spend a couple of hours thinking it through.”•
Check out the rest of IBJ's 2015 Innovation Issue.