Bill Gates Seems Like A Pretty Regular Guy - For A Billionaire

Here we are, standing in the small, cluttered office of William H. Gates III, known to his family as Trey, known to his friends, associates and 3,500 Microsoft employees as Bill.

He is 34, the Northwest's first and only billionaire, one of the richest men in America.

Flat out, you can say he's a genius. Not only is Bill Gates a computer wizard, his business acumen is 3.2 degrees sharper than mustard.

On the very day I saw Gates, his company reported fiscal year sales of $1.18 billion - the first computer software company to exceed $1 billion.

Yet here he was, casually dressed, tousled hair, soft shoes and an easy smile. What do you ask a guy like this?

So I blurted something out: ``Suppose nobody had invented computers, suppose computers didn't exist. What would you be doing today?''

He seemed to like the question.

``Something related to science, probably,'' he said. ``Math, physics, medicine. Those are the things I enjoy reading about. People I admire work in those fields.''

Gates added: ``Pure science has an appeal for me because you can tell if you really did something or not. You know who does good stuff. One of my favorite people is a guy who died recently, Richard Feynman.

``Feynman was a prof at Cal Tech, kind of an unusual guy, who had his own way of thinking about things. He was also very good at physics.''

We were off and running. There would be no silly questions about girl friends, being an eligible bachelor, how much money he really has - trivial junk that doesn't matter.

``What kind of stuff do you read?'' I asked.

He liked this question, too. ``A lot more history and biographies than science,'' he said. ``About every fourth book I read is a science book. Science books take longer to read.

``A book on the molecular biology of genes took me a year and a half to read. Some of the stuff I read is like `Barbarians at the Gate,' which everybody read. Now I'm reading this Picasso thing.

``In history I get interested in an era, like the making of the atomic bomb. There's about 10 great books on that. Biographies: Napoleon . . . FDR.

``The magazine I spend most of my days reading is the Economist, a British news weekly. It's incredible. I read that more than the Scientific American.''

Bill Gates is an incurable workaholic. He comes to his campus-like Microsoft headquarters (15 buildings, 221 acres) at 9 a.m. He goes home at 11 p.m. When does he find time to read?

He reads some at work, of course; or at night when he goes home to Laurelhurst.

``I'm a fast reader,'' he said. ``I always thought about taking one of those speed-reading courses, but I'm fairly high up on their scale even without that.''

Even though he reads computer magazines at a breakneck pace and rapidly devours current events, he truly savors reading. On the heavier stuff - science, for example - he slows down.

``You've got to make sure you're paying attention,'' he said. ``You find yourself moving along and then saying, `Wait a minute, did I really understand that or did the words just fly into my head?'

``I read an hour almost every night. It's part of falling asleep. ``Like anyone who loves books, if you get into a good book, it's hard to go to sleep.

``I like to get seven hours of sleep. Even though it's fun to stay up all night, maybe taking a red-eye flight, if I have to be creative I need seven hours. I can give a speech without much sleep, I can do parts of my job that way, but in thinking creatively, I'm not much good without seven hours.''

Thinking creatively. Computer stuff. To invade Bill Gates' thinking on his own intellectual turf, one would have a better chance of learning Sanskrit than computer language.

In workaday terminology his speech is spattered with ``randomness'' (a confused or haphazard situation) or ``bandwidth'' (the amount of information one can absorb); being young, he uses ``cool'' a lot, or ``super'' or ``gee whiz'' and there is a genuinely boyish quality about him when he says he had ``the funnest'' time doing something.

Who are his friends? Paul Allen, his co-founder of Microsoft, now owner of the Portland Trailblazers basketball team, is still one of his best friends, even though Allen has split off from Microsoft. Some of his friends are kids he knew in high school; many are in the computer business.

``It's interesting,'' he said. ``I live in Laurelhurst, my family lives about a mile away. My little sister lives a half mile away. I have another sister in Spokane.

``I'm very close to my family. For a guy my age, I spend more time with my family than anyone I know. My parents are a lot of fun. My dad,'' he said, referring to William Gates Jr., a prominent Seattle lawyer, ``ran the United Way campaign last year.''

He speaks of ``my mom'' with abounding affection. She, of course, is Mary Gates, a former schoolteacher, a director of First Interstate bank, a civic activist and a member of the UW board of regents.

``I recently built a place on Hood Canal,'' he said, ``where there's a house for each of us. I'm there with my family every other weekend.

``I'm close to Paul Allen, who started Microsoft with me. Paul got cancer, Hodgkin's disease, he was gone from work almost two years. I guess he decided life was short. I had pushed him pretty hard.

``He wanted to go out and prove he could do his own thing. I tried to convince him to do that within the context of Microsoft, but he decided to do it himself. About 90 per cent of his wealth is in Microsoft stock; he's on our board, he gives us good ideas.

``Now he's got the Portland Trail Blazers, and one of the funnest things I've done is to go with Paul to all those NBA playoff games. I went to Portland and Phoenix and Detroit and got to know some of the players. We had a wonderful time.''

(Coming Thursday: What if Ken Behring offered Bill Gates a chance to buy the Seahawks? What's it really like to be a kid billionaire? What are his values?)

Emmett Watson's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in the Northwest section of The Times.