The incredible life of David Kan

The South African ICT industry was recently shaken by the news of the passing of Mustek CEO David Kan.

The Taiwanese-born tech executive left a lasting impression on the country, particularly through Mustek’s well-known computer brand Mecer, which has become a familiar name in the home and business PC market.

Mustek said Kan was a much-loved and respected executive, while his contemporaries described him as someone with a great sense of humour.

Kan’s success story in South Africa is a combination of business bravery and opportunity.

Born in the Taiwan capital of Tapei on 2 July 1959, Kan did a series of odd jobs growing up, including working as a dishwasher at the age of 15.

He was also a waiter, truck driver, and removal company worker.

After completing the Taiwanese equivalent of matric at Ta-Hwa Junior College in Hsinchu in 1980, he left for the US to study mechanical engineering at Pittsburgh State University.

The Cathedral of Learning at Pittsburgh University

Kan graduated in 1986 and moved to South Africa, where his father was serving as a Taiwanese trade envoy. As is still the case today, Taiwan was one of the world’s biggest suppliers of computing equipment.

But Kan initially found a job working at a cutlery factory.

His big break came in 1987 when he attended the first personal computer exhibition in South Africa held at the now-abandoned Johannesburg Sun Hotel.

It was here that Kan met Taiwanese company Mustek Corporation’s managing director at the time, Owen Chen.

Mustek was looking to set up a South African factory, and Kan proposed a partnership with Chen to carry its plans through.

He borrowed $50,000 from Chen and his father to get the operation going. That turned out to be the only capital the company would need to get off its feet.

Mustek became the first PC assembler in South Africa and helped fill the gap for ICT equipment left by sanctions and high import fees.

Kan went from general manager in 1987 to CEO in 1995, and the company was listed on the JSE in 1997. It has seen tremendous growth in share value.

As of 1 June 2022, the company had a market cap of roughly R952 million. Most recently, it posted revenue of R4.2 billion for the six months ended 31 December 2021.

Kan also became one of the founding board members of Nigerian tech group Zinox Technologies.

Zinox group chairman Leo Ekeh described Kan as “a gentleman, a tech whiz kid, very knowledgeable and blessed with a good business brain”.

Kan (right), with Zinox Technologies chairman Leo Stan Ekeh (left) and Pierre Lanversin (middle), another co-founding board member of Zinox Technologies

Kan showed great humility in describing the reasons for the success of Mustek.

He maintained he knew nothing about computers, business, or being a boss when he started and merely had timing on his side.

“The global PC industry started to take off in 1987, and Taiwanese companies were the main hardware suppliers to the global market. Being Taiwanese, I certainly took a lot of advantages as a startup,” Kan told MyBroadband.

In an interview with Engineering News in 2002, Kan said his father had the biggest influence on his life and career.

He said the business person who had impressed him most was Andy Grove, a renowned semiconductor pioneer at Intel.

Kan described himself as having an “open door” management style and said he regarded equal rights and freedom as philosophies to live by.

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The incredible life of David Kan