WHEN it comes to making a name for itself, the approach that United States-based networking company 3Com has taken is undoubtedly different. And it works. The company may not be a Microsoft in terms of size and market dominance, but there are few sports fans in San Francisco who would be unfamiliar with the 3Com name. Ever since the company bought the right to change the name of the city's Candlestick Park to 3Com Park, its fame has spread somewhat. And now, the firm that has grown considerably in recent years thanks to its policy of aggressive acquisitions and renewed focus is pushing into Asia. During the past year alone, the company's growth rate in Europe was between 60 and 65 per cent while the Asia-Pacific growth - including Japan - was more than 100 per cent, 'by far the fastest geographic area in the company', chief financial officer Christopher Paisley said. In Asia, the firm has been 'aggressively opening up offices throughout the region', according to 3Com Hong Kong managing director Daniel Ng. The firm now maintains 12 offices staffed by about 50 people in the region. Mr Ng estimated that the staff figure would surpass the 100 mark before the end of 3Com's current fiscal year. He said the company wanted to increase staff to take care of the rapidly growing business. Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam were on 3Com's hotlist for office openings in the near future, he said. 3Com's clients in Asia include large public projects such as the Hong Kong Hospital Authority, Bangkok Hospital and the Singapore General Hospital. China Light & Power ranks as one of its top regional customers as does Hokkaido University in Japan and the National University of Singapore. 3Com has just completed buying computer network equipment maker Chipcom Corp for about US$900 million (HK$6.96 billion). After the buyout, 3Com became the second-biggest computer network equipment maker after Cisco Systems in terms of revenue. Santa Clara, California-based 3Com bought Chipcom to gain its expertise in making hubs and other high-end computer network equipment. The acquisition is 3Com's 10th and its largest since 1990. It has been buying companies for their state-of-the-art products to keep abreast of Cisco and Bay Networks, which had been the second-biggest network vendor. 3Com specialises in the low-end networking market with a core business in routers, which are devices that connect local area networks that use different standards. Chipcom focused on the mid-range market place for hubs, which are central connecting devices within networks. The hub market has become particularly hot in recent months because of the growing use of huge data networks. A similar merger occurred last year when hub specialist SynOptics Communications agreed to a buyout by router producer Wellfleet Communications for US$1.25 billion to form Bay Networks. Founded in the summer of 1979, 3Com is one of the pioneers of the industry, according to Mr Paisley. With about 3,500 staff and 70 offices around the world, 3Com is 'getting to be a pretty good-sized company'. In the 12 months ended August 1995, the company recorded almost US$1.5 billion in sales. One of the more surprising figures from the past quarter was that for the first time in 3Com's history more than half its business came from systems products. Historically, most of 3Com's business has come from the sale of adapters, a fact that, according to Mr Paisley, always 'raised eyebrows' in the financial community. 'They [the financial community] aren't quite as enthused about the adapter business as they are the systems business, but we expect this trend [the move to the systems business] to continue,' he said. 'If you look at the growth rates, our systems business has had a remarkable run. In the summer months it was up 23 per cent over the spring quarter and 99 per cent year on year. In essence our systems business has doubled over 12 months.' 'We're not the largest . . . but we're the fastest growing and have been for a little while,' he said, but stressed in less than a year 3Com had narrowed the gap between it and leader Cisco so that Cisco was now only 'about triple our size and not five times our size'. The firm has been growing a little bit more than twice the industry growth rate for systems, which 3Com believes is about 30 to 50 per cent. The company's adapter business growth is about 36 per cent year on year - also about double the industry growth rate of between 10 and 20 per cent. The company's sales in its last quarter increased 64 per cent compared with the figures for the same quarter last year from US$262.8 million to $430.4 million. 3Com grew rapidly in the early '80s reaching about US$400 million in sales in 1989. It then stagnated at that level for a couple of years, a position that led to a number of changes in its strategy and leadership. Eric Benhamou was named chief executive officer in the spring of 1990. 3Com's stagnation in the late '80s was mainly due to an identity crisis it suffered at the time, trying to figure out if it was a computer company that was getting into the growing area of client-server computing or if it was a networking company. 'With the benefit of hindsight, we answered it wrong,' Mr Paisley said. 'We attempted to become a computer company.' When it became clear that that strategy was not working, to his credit the then CEO William Krause decided to re-examine the direction and leadership of the firm. 'It's pretty remarkable for someone to throw on the table even his own position,' Mr Paisley said. 'Bill, to his credit, did that and that led to a number of changes, and one of the significant ones was Eric Benhamou becoming CEO.' One of the first things Mr Benhamou decided to do with 3Com was to take it back to its roots as a networking company, an area in which it was well versed and successful. 'This was far easier said than done,' Mr Paisley said. 'That meant 3Com would exit what had built up to be about one-third of its revenues in networking software, servers, diskless workstations and so on. 'We refocused on hubs, routers and so on, but we knew that we were playing catch-up. Cisco and Wellfleet had got ahead of us in internetworking; Cabletron and SynOptics were ahead of us in hubs, and we were pretty clear that a me-too strategy wouldn't work.' Instead of going after its competitors on 'their own turf', a number of key strategies were decided. One was to increase its breadth of products. It started to offer not just single products, but overall solutions. At the time Cisco was focused on providing companies with network backbones, and SynOptics was a leader with its large-chassis multi-function hubs. 'We were going to go after the entire product spectrum,' Mr Paisley said. 'We were already playing catch-up and now to spread our R&D resources that much thinner to compete in all areas was going to be a bit of a challenge to say the least. 'But that was a key part of the vision.' A second part of that vision was to continue to rely on multiple channels of distribution. Historically, all of 3Com's competitors sold direct to end users. 3Com became what was probably the only player at the time that started using multiple distribution channels, using value added resellers and system integrators in addition to direct sales. A third challenge for 3Com was that it was 'going to have to look for ways to innovate and attack the market in ways that didn't create a me-too strategy', Mr Paisley said. As a result it invented stackable hubs, boundary routing and switching, 'all of which turned out to be good bets; bets that were made in the '91, '92, '93 timeframe that have helped us grow now', he said. 'Clearly whether we're going to be winning in the '97, '98 timeframe is going to be driven by the bets we're making today,' he said. Acquisitions was another key part of the company's strategy. '[Mr Benhamou] believed that by the end of the decade there would probably only be two, maybe three networking companies that would be winners and that if we were going to be one of them, we had to get to critical mass quickly,' Mr Paisley said. The only way to do that was to keep growth high and go after companies that looked promising. But Mr Paisley is quick to admit that acquisitions form a tricky business. 'Every one of these acquisitions have been hard . . . there's lots of things that can go awry if you're not careful,' he said. On the product side, 3Com focused on coming up with a range of products that were good by themselves but that would also complement each other. It started to approach customers with ideas for integrated solutions, visiting campuses with suggestions for connecting small workgroups, coming up with ways for individuals to connect to their company networks while on the go, solutions for networking networks through wide areas, and a host of other ideas that most computer network users take for granted today. It wasn't long before 3Com realised most of the solutions its customers wanted fell into those categories, and it made use of this knowledge to push what it called high-performance scalable networking (HPSN) - an investment in 3Com products that were scalable and could be expanded over time as user needs demanded. More recently, the company has been focusing on the small office and home computer market, an area that has been growing rapidly. Mr Paisley sees huge potential for growth in this market, especially with the burgeoning use of the Internet increasing people's needs for better networking products. '[3Com] is trying to branch out,' Mr Paisley said. In this light, the company's move to give its name to Candlestick Park was just one attempt to make it a household name that would be synonymous with networking. In addition to the 3Com Park move, the company has been using somewhat less controversial strategies to increase name awareness. In San Jose, for example, the company has donated more then US$4 million in equipment to enable all of the schools in Santa Clara County to be connected to the Internet. 3Com was definitely looking at being involved in similar community projects outside the US, he said, adding that involvement in community projects in Asia were on the cards.