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Making It
His software firm became a proving ground for his dream of true teamwork

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Sunday, March 18, 2007

When Simon Lee was growing up on a small farm in South Korea, his mother repeatedly told him: "If you plant the seed and tend the land, you will get a crop. If you don't plant the seed and don't tend the land, you get nothing."

When Simon was a toddler, his father and three siblings were killed in the Korean War, then his mother died when he was 13. His oldest brother sold the family land to send Simon to college. Living by their mother's advice has led Simon, at age 57, to a top-floor office with sweeping views along the Dulles Toll Road, where he presides over STG Inc., the software company he founded in 1986.

It has been a long journey. Simon, his wife, Anna, and their young daughter came to the United States in 1979, speaking only school-taught English. Simon found a job running the computer system at O'Donnell's Seafood Restaurant in Bethesda. After eight months, he bought a house in Rockville for $58,000. "What a great country," Simon says. "Even in Korea, I don't own my own home."

Simon studied English and computers in the evenings, and moved up through several technology companies, propelled by his talent for computer programming and his constant search for a bigger challenge. He landed at MCI in 1984 and became a rising star -- earning vacations, theater tickets and dinners from the company.

"My wife liked this," he says, but he wanted something more. "I wanted to have my own company . . . that can be managed by my own business culture," he explains.

Simon envisioned a workplace of cooperation, not competition, where employees are encouraged to help one another and even socialize together. A team that works together will get more done, more accurately, creating a competitive edge, he said. Simon peppers his conversation with examples of camaraderie and teamwork at STG, such as the regular breakfast and lunch gatherings, for which the company pays. The employees even helped choose the location of the company's current headquarters.

But in the beginning, Simon spent years fruitlessly courting government business, as STG's annual revenue hovered around $600,000. Finally, in 1991, Simon landed a single State Department contract. Government work grew from there, and now STG has $170 million in revenue; Simon's goal is $1 billion by 2016.

Simon admits he would like nothing more than for his four children to follow in his footsteps as technology entrepreneurs (they have all worked at STG). But he supports their choices to pursue other careers -- to a point.

Julie, now 30 and recently married, worked for STG and has her own 400-employee software company. Michelle, 27, became a chef -- then changed her mind. Now she, too, runs a small software firm that Simon acquired. The youngest daughter is a teenager living at home. And Simon's only son, Phillip, is pursuing an acting career in South Korea. Simon is eagerly waiting to see whether that choice pans out.

"My philosophy is: I want to give the opportunity to each of my children, at least twice, to do their own stuff," he says. "After that, if it doesn't work out, they have to do what I want them to do."

Have you made big money following your ideals? E-mail presslerm@washpost.com

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