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Victoria Finlay


Friday, February 23, 2001

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Travels of a dotcom whizz-kid

SHERRY LEE

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Copyright  2001. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Dotcom giant: Canadian-born Keith Peiris gets some extra height at the podium while delivering his speech to the Hong Kong Productivity Council at which he shared details of a meteoric career driven by his Web site design page. Picture by Ricky Chung
Keith Peiris insists he is just a "normal kid". But as the 12-year-old computer prodigy takes the Internet world by storm and is poised to expand his multi-million dollar empire into China, it is something of an understatement.

The youngster heads one of the leading Web design companies in Canada and has pressed the flesh with the likes of Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji and Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Last week he was among a 350-strong, nine-day trade delegation that accompanied Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

He was in constant demand during his three-day stay in Hong Kong - a whirl of power talks, interviews and speeches - but after a quick fax to the Canadian Consulate requesting a meeting, I field a call from Keith's father, Deepal. "You want to interview my son? Come tomorrow at 8am - you'll have half an hour."

The next day I'm waiting at the exhibition hall of the Hong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC) in Kowloon Tong. The room is empty, but it will soon be teeming with technology-obsessed youngsters determined to hear their new idol accept yet another award: this time HKPC's first "Outstanding Digi Youth" award.

It is 8.10am and he still hasn't arrived. Suddenly a sea of suits spills from a lift. But still no sign of the young Peiris. Then I catch a glimpse of a small figure striding among them. Dressed in bespoke business suit and scarlet tie, he looks a little like a schoolboy on his way to a wedding banquet. His black shoes shine. His gelled-back ebony hair gleams in the morning light.

He nods at me, but shyly lowers his head as he climbs into a chair. He's fidgety and a little nervous. At 1.5 metres, his legs dangle from the chair. He really is just another kid, I decide. But as soon as I start firing questions at him, his demeanour changes. The child vanishes and the self-assured business mogul takes over. He may have the voice of a pre-pubescent 12-year-old, but his delivery is that of a cocksure entrepreneur.

"Call me Keith," he offers softly. "I feel uneasy if people call me mister."

Before me is a child as comfortable with interview technique as most his age are with surfing the net. While they click on their favourite sites, Keith is earning a six-figure salary designing them.

He is clearly a quick learner. "First I felt nervous. Now, I am getting used to it [talking like an adult]," he says.

President and chief executive officer of Cyberteks Design, Keith owns 95 per cent of the company. His mother, Sryia, owns the other five and his father is employed as vice-president of operations. Peiris Snr says his son pays him "a fair wage" to administer the business.

Although his age draws the media spotlight, it brings with it a built-in prejudice, Keith admits. Some clients change their minds when they discover he still hasn't hit his teens. "It's happened many times. People don't think they can trust a 12-year-old boy, but the problem fades away as they see the quality of work. I am better than 80 per cent of my competitors," Keith says.

Peiris Snr says jealousy often rears its ugly head. "Sometimes people have sent e-mails to him, saying things such as 'you don't know what you're talking about', but we don't read them now."

Keith has two full-time, four part-time workers and seven sales people, all of whom are at least twice his age. "My staff consider me an adult," he says. "I am the boss, they don't mind taking orders from me." His father did ask job applicants if they had a problem working for a boy, adding that several top people from major Web-design companies had applied to work under his son. After school Keith and his father would interview applicants.

It all started for Keith at age 10, after toying with software downloaded from a Web site. He taught himself design and now produces lively, user-friendly sites which have won numerous design awards and accolades. Those talents are showcased at his eye-cathing Web site, http://www.cyberteks.net/, which bristles with interactive animation and music. The interview runs smoothly, but suddenly someone calls and Keith rushes off. "Excuse me, I have to connect my notebook for the speech, I will be back in five minutes," he says. He never returns. It is already 8.30am and time for the day's other interview with a local television station.

I find Keith in an upstairs room where a 40-something producer rehearses questions with him.

"Hey, Keith, do you have fun in Hong Kong?" he asks cheerfully, while playfully jumping several times on the ground. Keith, however, is not amused, and as the cameraman shouts "rolling", Keith speaks of information technology, Silicon Valley and China's entry to the World Trade Organisation.

"China will become an economic power house in the next decade. The Chinese Government is doing great things to improve the economy," he says, sounding every inch a China analyst.

Moments later, a group of excited children pour into the room, all clutching pieces of paper. Arranged by the broadcaster in advance, the youngsters have a group picture taken with their idol . . . and a few lucky ones get to ask him a question.

All of the children appear startlingly intelligent. They speak in terms and of issues that would flummox most adults.

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Copyright 2001. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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