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Friday, February 23, 2001

PEOPLE

Travels of a dotcom whizz-kid

SHERRY LEE
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.

"Hello, what is your opinion about Microsoft's monopoly of the market?" a Chinese girl of Keith's age asks in fluent English.

"Without doubt," Keith says, "monopoly is wrong and should be stopped."

"Do you think you are a genius?" another girl asks.

"Genius?" he says.

"Not at all, I am no cleverer than others. Anyone who works hard can do what I do."

But the business world has its price. He has had to grow up quickly. Unlike his peers, the straight-A student of St Bernadette Catholic School in London, Ontario, watches little TV. After school he works and it is only on weekends that he can play.

Everyday Keith does his homework at school, before returning home to work up to five hours designing pages or offering quotes for contracts. If he has a lot of homework and sites to finish, he could work until after midnight.

But at weekends he tries to relax a little. He likes ice hockey, admits to enjoying video games and has many friends his own age.

"My friends are normal kids, they go to the movies, some like computers, some collect hockey cards," he says. "I go to the movies for the plot, but not for the movie stars," he says.

His only idol is, predictably enough, Microsoft supremo Bill Gates.

Keith says he strives to be the world's number one Web designer. "Of course I am not the best, I am learning. I'm still only 12. I have lots of time to be an expert."

While Keith handles the creative side, his father handles the administration and marketing. Peiris Snr says his role is to support his son's interests and ambitions. "We make decisions together, I haven't done anything my son disagreed with. He makes the final decision," he told Reuters in a recent interview.

Peiris Snr and his wife left Sri Lanka for Canada in 1981. They first settled in Montreal, where Sryia was working on a doctorate in organic chemistry, before making London their home.

When Keith was born in 1988, she left her job to care for him full-time.

Asked if he thinks Keith is happy, Peiris Snr, says: "Oh, yes, he is a happy kid."

Keith says he never feels under any pressure and treats his job as "fun".

Next Tuesday he turns 13. Life seems fun, but he has grown-up decisions to make. Keith says he may sell part of the business. When asked why, he replies, with a touch of annoyance: "It is very obvious - for the money."

When he was younger, Keith fantasised about becoming a hockey player, but his dreams have changed. "Now I want to stay with my company until I die," he says.

His company already has 25 clients in North America, including blue-chip companies such as Interrep, the largest radio advertising agency in the US.

His Internet kingdom is expanding to China, and on his visit the cyber whizz-kid revealed plans to open offices in Hong Kong and Zhangmutou, Guangdong province, in July, and another in Beijing around December.

Proud of his achievements, the Canadian Government called him a role model for the younger generation. A member of the delegation, Bruce Pridmore, of Canada's National Research Council, says: "Keith is a reflection of what Canadian innovation is all about, we don't only have large trees, gas, and natural resources, but innovation. He will have an influence on all young people, not only in Canada, but here in Hong Kong."

So what are Keith's long-term goals? Go to university and have one or two PhDs in computer science and business.

His trip rewarded him with "lots of contacts" of government officials and businessmen. "It is really worth the trip, I would come again to China and Hong Kong," Keith says.

Hong Kong, it seems, would love to have him back. And you get the impression this won't be the last we hear of Keith Peiris.

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