“Boston, MA – March 20, 2014 – International Data Group IDG announced today with great sadness that its Founder and Chairman, Patrick J. McGovern, died March 19, 2014, at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California.”
I worked for Pat McGovern for eight months in 2005 when I was running online at CXO — the branch of IDG publishing that published CIO, CSO, CMO Magazines. I competed against his publications in the early 80s when I worked for PC Week, the arch-rival of IDG’s InfoWorld.
There are going to be a ton of Pat McGovern stories told over the next few days. Here’s mine.
While Pat was a lion in technology publishing he was also one of the first and most influential western businessmen to operate in the People’s Republic of China. His presence in China, his reputation there to this very day, is legendary and made him the most well known and respected Westerner sin the Chinese tech sector. His VC investments in the likes of Baidu were early and massive successes. The man even spoke Mandarin.
During the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics I was surprised to find myself riding in the back of a bus with Pat on our way to a private dinner with Lenovo’s senior executives and some heavy hitting senior execs from Qualcomm, Google, Microsoft, Intel, AMD, etc.. I saw him sitting alone in the back of the bus, so I sat down beside him and started chatting him up, thanking him for the opportunity to briefly work for him before quitting to join Lenovo. He was legendary for his photographic memory and immediately made the connection and started peppering me with questions.
As the bus crawled through traffic it was apparent that most everybody sitting within six rows of us was eaves-dropping on the conversation, most of them unaware of who Pat was. He was a big man but a soft spoken one; not at all brash or loud. So I introduced him around to the people in the adjacent seats as the first Westerner to do business in Communist China, well before Deng’s market reforms that led to “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” and unlocked the Chinese growth we marvel at today. I urged Pat to tell the bus the story of how he infiltrated China in the 1970s. The story went roughly like this: Pat was on a flight from Japan to Russia and figured out he could make a “connection” in Beijing. This is back in the era of Nixon-Mao and PingPong diplomacy. Let’s just say there were no princelings drag racing Ferrari’s around the third ring road back then. Anyway, the plane lands, Pat looks out the window, amazed he’s this close to the mysterious closed country. So he gets off the plane. The plane leaves without him. The Red Guard are confronted with this American standing in their airport essentially saying “Take me to your leader.”
Pat humbly regaled the bus for 30 minutes with the story of how he invaded China, set up the first Chinese tech publications, and earned the trust and respect of the Chinese government. When we arrived at the restaurant it was my Chinese colleagues who really lit up at the sight of him, hustling him away to a place of honor next to the chairman and CEO of Lenovo as befitted the father of Chinese computer journalism.
He was a genuinely great man. Here’s his story of how he entered China as captured in the official IDG oral history:
That was in 1978. We didn’t even have diplomatic relations with China back then. I thought here are a billion people who I knew were very respectful of learning and education and the Confucian philosophy. In the United States the Chinese people were very successful in engineering and math and sciences, so I knew this was a natural interest of theirs. I dreamed that if I was ever going to fulfill our mission of being able to help tens of millions and hundreds of millions of people with information, I had better get involved in China as early as possible.
I was told that there was absolutely that I could get a visa to go to China. We didn’t have diplomatic relations. So I said, “What I’d like to do is just get a little flavor of the country, so I’ll plan a trip. “I had to go to Japan to have a board meeting, and then there was a computer exposition in Moscow that I would go to. I noticed that there was a flight that went Tokyo to Beijing, and then a flight that went to Moscow. I just said, “I’ll take this service and I’ll arrive on one day, and then I’ll go back and on the next day I’ll just be in transit.” I thought I would, at minimum, be able to stay at the airport and stay at the airport and see what’s going on.
I went to our local booking office of the travel agency who didn’t know anything about international regulations, so they wrote up the ticket this way. I went to the airport in Tokyo, and they said, “Oh, you know you are going to get off in Beijing. Where’s your visa?” I said, “Oh no, I don’t need a visa. I’m only in transit.” They said, “No, there is no transit.” I said, “Oh yes, my airline reservation people checked this out, no problem.” I just went aboard the plane. The pilot said, “There will be a few minutes delay. We have some paperwork to complete.” Then all of a sudden three people came aboard the plane with big documents. They said, “Mr. McGovern, before this plane must leave, must sign waivers of liability for this airline.” There were two chaps from the airlines and another from the Airport Authority. They all wanted me to sign that I was not going to hold them responsible for this apparent violation of international travel.
I just said, “Well, I’m going.” So we went, and we arrived in Beijing. I looked and the airport hangar was like a Quonset hut. I thought, “Uh-oh. There is obviously not any real transit here.” As I was getting off the plane, a woman looked at me and said, “What country are you from?” I said, “The United States.” “Oh no, you’re not.” I said, “Yes I am.” “You can’t be.” I said, “Why do you ask?” “I handle the U.S. interest section at the Canadian Embassy and there are no Americans coming here for the next six months.” I said, “I’m only here on transit.” She said, “Oh no, we’re going to hear a lot about you.” As we walked to the terminal I said, “They can’t put me back on that plane.” I went in and gave my passport. They said, “Visa, visa.” I said, “Transit, transit. I am only staying one day. Tomorrow evening I leave by air flight.” They all went into the back room for a 20-minute heated discussion, and then they came out with a piece of rice paper. They had hand written a visa. They said, “Put this in a paper clip in your passport, and as you leave, tear it up. Never tell anyone where you got this.”
I was able to get into Beijing, get around and walk through the city. I saw bookstores crowded with people three deep. I thought, “This is a publisher’s dream. I’ve got to get involved here as soon as I can.” As soon as [Dung Xiao Ping] announced the open door policy in the beginning of 1980, for the first time foreigners could invest and create a business in China. I immediately went over and organized a technical seminar program where I had speakers from Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, database companies, etc. While there I met the Minister of the Computer and Electronics Industry. They had strange naming systems. They would call it the 4th Ministry of Machine Building. You would never know what it was about. The computer making factories were called radio factories because that was their word for electronics. People would say, “Where are you visiting?” “I’m going to a radio factory, ” and they would ask, “What are you doing that for?” I had been told by many that it would take years to get a project going. It’s the world’s largest government bureaucracy and there are many permissions to get. I was fully expecting this to happen. When I met the minister he said, “We need to inform our people about the information economy and the information age. Your information service would be very helpful to our growth and we would like to form a joint venture with you and make a weekly newspaper.” I said, “That sounds very interesting.” For two days we met in the morning, and we completely defined all the terms and conditions of a joint venture. It turned out we were the first people who were putting this into operation. Most of the terms had no precedent.
As we were making the budget I would ask, “What are the social charges that we should add to the salary that we are going to pay to the people working in the company?” They asked, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, the government pays for education, for healthcare, for housing, so there must be some charge we have to pay the government as a contribution toward this.” They said, “We have no national accounting system that ever has put out these numbers.” So they asked, “What is it in other countries?” We said, “It’s 60% in France and 40% in Germany.” So they said, “Well, we’ll just take an average of those.” We just put down this as the way of establishing the basic economics.
In total contrast to the so-called experts who told me it would take years to get aproject going, they had it all approved by the State Bank of China and the State Council, and we were in operation within just a few months. When the first issue came out it was announced on their national television. We had 20,000 paid subscribers in the first week, and now it is the thickest computer publication in the world. China Computerworld runs over 10,000 pages of advertising every year. It’s been an enormous success, and has over 2 million readers now. From that base we’ve launched 19 other periodicals in China. In fact, now, because we are well established as a publishing company, international publishers have asked us to help introduce their publications in China. So now we do a motor magazine, a music magazine. We do Cosmopolitan magazine. We do Esquire magazine. We are going to do a bride’s magazine. We actually have a broad consumer portfolio there that’s built on the fact that we have the largest publishing infrastructure in China.