It is hard to think of C.M. Chan as a business executive or the chief executive of an Internet startup. This is because his personality is more like that of a professor in philosophy or a university researcher. Mr Chan is the man behind Asian Information Resources, an Internet legal and economic information provider listed on the Growth Enterprise Market (GEM) index, the second board in Hong Kong. He employs about 70 in Hong Kong and more than 40 in Guangzhou. Mr Chan, having held two master's degrees - physics and law - has spent a significant amount of time on university campuses. He started a PhD programme in law at the University of Hong Kong in 1992, after he had returned from Britain, where he had obtained a master's in law from the University of Lancaster. Following his return to Hong Kong, Mr Chan tried to find a suitable job. However, to his frustration, even being a holder of two master's degrees failed to land him one. Ultimately, he made a breakthrough at the University of Hong Kong. It was here he got involved in Law-on-line, a computer programme aiming to provide Hong Kong people with information on the mainland's legal system. The programme flourished, and from a start-up grant of just HK$20,000 and a team of three in 1993, it has grown leaps and bounds. In 1995, it received $13 million from the SAR Government for research on the Internet. Mr Chan was so immersed in the research he did not finish his doctoral thesis. However, that was not much of a loss for him as he had long felt the university campus was not where his talents could be best developed and used. Besides, the PhD programme was more of a temporary respite. Mr Chan said the degrees he had accumulated had contributed to his growth. 'Physics gives me the structural and logical thinking which is important for business planning; law gives me access to China's legal system, which provides contacts and database,' he said. In 1996, the funding from the Government for Law-on-line dried up. The project was then handed over to Asian Information Resources, a small company acting as a marketing arm for the project. Mr Chan joined Asian Information in early 1997 as the chief executive. Although his title suggested he was the honcho in the company, the truth was far from it. The company had only five to six staff and was running up losses. Mr Chan had to start from scratch. Faced with the difficulty of securing venture capital to finance the project and due to a lack of commercial experience, Mr Chan had a hard time keeping the company afloat. However, the contacts he had made over the years helped. Asian Information then signed up with the mainland's state-run organisations in the legal and statistics field to provide it with raw content and information. These included government agencies such as the Legislative Affairs of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, the China Federation of Industrial Economics and local publishers such as the People's Daily, the Legal Daily and the China Daily. Mr Chan attributed the growth of the company to the alliances with key mainland organisations, which enabled Asian Information to receive privileged information on mainland laws and regulations and its economy. This further enhanced its business with other partners. He said his lack of business experience ironically had helped him form the business alliances on the mainland. 'For most of the deals we signed, there was no need for formal negotiations. They did not see me as coming to talk about business but trying to provide a service,' he said. 'Mutual trust and respect are important in such relationships.' Interestingly, as the person behind the wheel of an Internet content provider, Mr Chan said he preferred to read information in the old way rather than online. 'I always print out stuff for reading,' he said. Like most mainlanders, Mr Chan likes Chinese tea. He talked about the top-quality tea from Hangzhou before the first rainfall of the year and the Taiwanese tea, grown in the mountainous region of the island. He also said he kept more than 30 kinds of tea at home and could easily tell the source of the tea just by sipping it. On the desk in his office, there was one of those elegant tea sets used only by people who appreciate the delicate flavour of the very best tea. Mr Chan also loves animals and reptiles. At one time, he used to have 15 snakes and more than 10 lizards as pets. But the demands of his job have dimmed most of his interest and at present he keeps only a ferret. Mr Chan splits his time between Hong Kong and Guangzhou, where his wife and newborn daughter live. He met his wife from Hunan province five years ago in Dongguan and tied the knot in 1998. The 38-year-old looks young for his age. He said his grey hair grew during the difficult time he went through late last year, when Asian Information was listed on GEM and his first child was born. 'That was a very difficult time for me,' he said. Mr Chan said his true interest lay in setting up a venture and developing a new business of his own, rather than managing an established one. He now devotes most of his energy to developing Asian Information's Guangzhou office. 'When an operation is up and running, I would like to leave it to other people to run it. 'For me, the most satisfying time is the initial phase of development,' he said. Mr Chan wants Asian Information to diversify into an electronic publisher, generating revenues from value-added information products. This differs from an Internet content provider which relies mostly on advertising revenues from the portal. He cites the example of International Data Corp, a United States-based market research firm, of selling a report on Internet development in Asia for US$10,000. He considers that is something Asian Information should do to differentiate itself from its competitors.