AS companies evolve into mature entities, they rarely retain the characteristics of the founders, unless they possess unique strengths. So, when one of those rare breed of dynamic personality-driven companies is seen to be coveting the challenge of China, more than a few heads turn. Everyone wants to know about the experience and strategy of these ''pioneers''. The world's largest developer of business application software and CASE (computer-aided software engineering) tools for the popular IBM AS/400 mid-range market, involves one such company. Its founder - who also happens to be the primary architect of the company's China strategy - is fluent in spoken and written Mandarin. Furthermore, he is currently taking time out to undertake a formal study of Chinese art. To talk about a dedicated ''hands on'' approach would be an understatement. The man is Roger Covey and the company he created more than a decade ago, System Software Associates (SSA) is listed as one of Fortune magazine's 100 fastest growing companies. Mr Covey's business outlook may be unusual, but critics cannot deny his success. With more than 70,000 installed SSA products at 6,000 plus companies worldwide, SSA is ranked the world's fourth largest manufacturing software company with sales for fiscal 1993 a healthy US$263.4 million. One of the factors attributed to SSA's success is that it has always viewed each country as possessing unique needs and perceptions of technology. In keeping with that philosophy, it is easy to see that having one's founder travelling through the world's biggest potential market, helps gain invaluable inside information and experience about the market. Even more importantly, it means acquiring guanxi (the political goodwill essential for doing business on the mainland). It is important to note that the emerging markets of China and India possess the oldest trading cultures in the world, and business is often ''not just business''. There are unspoken protocols to be observed. And one cannot read up about them. Mr Covey's individual efforts have certainly strengthened SSA's position in China and the region. SSA's new area vice-president for the Asia-Pacific and Australasia, Victor Ang, agrees. ''Our Asia-Pacific business is expected to account for one-third of the total company revenues in the near future,'' he said. Indeed, SSA's Asia-Pacific operations have been expanding rapidly since its incorporation in 1988, and it seems if anyone was to have a long-term road into China, then that is the Covey-driven SSA. Surprisingly, for such a big company, only recently have cross-platform SSA products reflecting the industry trend towards Open Systems been announced. Before year's end, customers will be able to choose a SSA product and then decide which hardware to run it on. A year ago, they would have been restricted to the AS/400 IBM platform. The relatively slow implementation of open systems does not seem to have hurt SSA, especially in China. The IBM AS/400 is still widely regarded as one of the most popular computer systems in China, endorsed by the Chinese National Planning Commission which recommends it as ideal for medium-sized firms. And SSA has a hold on that market. SSA's early presence in China gave the company valuable expertise in software translation and the use of double-byte Chinese characters. A case in point, when IBM developed its double-byte operating system for the AS/400, SSA was ready. As a result, SSA was able to become the first wholly-owned foreign enterprise to focus exclusively on the software and service needs of China's industrial and manufacturing sectors. It is not surprising then that of the three distinct product lines of integrated software solutions that SSA develops and supports, the manufacturing software aspect of its flagship BPCS product can be regarded as its main China strength. The BPCS (Business Planning and Control Systems) suite comprises more than 30 individual and integrated products across four broad applications: computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM), Distribution/Logistics, Financial Applications, and Decision Support. SSA already has several hundred Chinese-language BPCS clients supported through its headquarters in Beijing and offices in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Xiamen. SSA also provides comprehensive EDI systems (Electronic Data Exchange) designed for the computer to computer exchange of business information. And, finally, and perhaps more importantly, it provides AS/SET, the new CASE (computer aided-software engineering) application development tools behind SSA's BPCS and EDI products. AS/SET CASE (SSA's Open Systems implementation) will allow the company's installed base of AS/400 clients to protect their investment by having the option to migrate to client/server environments. As such, the AS/SET-based version of BPCS, scheduled for release later this year, will operate on multiple platforms, including the IBM AS/400, IBM RS/6000, Windows NT and the Hewlett Packard 9000. SSA's line of EDI products will soon be offering similar options.