Sunday, November 14, 2010

Real Life Business Education: China & Hong – Growing Pains

We woke up early Thursday morning and headed down to the breakfast area of the JW Marriot in Shenzhen. The main breakfast area was set up as an elaborate buffet. There were different stations for pastries, egg based dishes, fruit, yogurt, Asian breakfast, and various other hot food selections. The entire time I ate, there was a young man standing about 5-10 feet from the table just waiting for my water glass to dip below the half-way point, or for me to ask for an additional fork, or something else. This level of service was something that permeated the hotel.

After breakfast, we were met by a driver who would be taking us to a meeting that was about 2 hours outside of the city. We boarded the van (waters in hand) and headed for the most remote part of China I would see on the visit. Between our hotel and the meeting site, we saw every level of poverty and wealth. We saw hundreds if not thousands of high rise buildings going up in every direction as we left the city. Most of these buildings fell into one of two categories… shiny and new or in utter disrepair. This is probably the result of a typical Shenzhen alternative to maintenance- tear it down and build something new. After about 75 minutes of nothing but sprawling city we began to see some of the surrounding area. We saw large suspension bridges that lead to Hong Kong, existing and construction to build new ports, and lots of water. We passed by recently renovated areas that are intended for the 2010 Asian games just a few miles from complete neighborhoods of shanties. We also saw several small pools of water that were being aerated.

That 2 hour ride gave me a view of what unrestricted growth coupled with government incentives and an artificially low currency can accomplish. It was truly amazing, but I din’t see one area along that route that I would actually want to live. Water and air pollution are rampant, structural and personal safety are in question, and there was a general feeling of filth just about everywhere (except in the shiny new buildings).

We arrived at the meeting at about 10AM and wrapped up just in time for lunch. We had a nice lunch at a local restaurant where stuck mainly to vegetarian and pork dishes- save for one pigeon soup. After lunch we headed back he same way we came, and at 4:30PM I walked back in the door of the JW Marriot – safe and sound in a luxurious bubble.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Real Life Business Education: China & Hong – An Adolescent Economy

I spent my third and final day in Beijing wrapping up the process improvement project that started on Monday, and talking with our legal group that looks after all of China. I packed my bags early that morning and had them loaded in the van so we could go straight to the airport at about 3PM.

We arrived at Beijing International Airport about 2 hours early for the flight. We were booked on China Southern out of Terminal 1 (not the beautiful new terminal that was built for the Beijing Olympic Games). From the time I entered the airport in Beijing to the time I arrived in my Shenzhen hotel, I saw a different side of China. Up to this point I has spent my time in a luxury apartment building, in a van with a personal driver, or with technology companies. This part of the trip seemed a bit more authentic.

After checking in for our seats, we headed to the security check in. The check in was a mess of lines moving at different speeds with X-ray machines and tons of airport staff. The carry-on scanner in my particular line broke just after I had reached a place in the line that made it difficult to exit and move to a faster one. About 30 minutes later I made it through to the metal detector. The metal detector might as well have been a door way, because it went off on every person in every line. Shortly after the metal detector, I stepped up to a platform where I was patted down – it seems that pat downs were standard operating procedure. Finally, after about 45 total minutes, I exited the security area and headed to my gate.

The gate area was old and dirty, over a jet-way style walking bridge and down a large set of stairs, it felt more like a rundown bus station than an airport. Ironically, we exited the airport and boarded a bus for our plane. While walking up the tall metal staircase to the door of the China Southern aircraft, I noticed some patchwork that had been performed on the wings. It was blended in to be unnoticeable like it would be in the States or Europe.

The plane itself was slightly dirty, but generally what could be expected of an aircraft that flies 2-3 hour segments. We took off and I put my faith in the pilots and a whole aviation system that I knew absolutely nothing about. The flight itself was rather uneventful- I watched a Chinese movie with subtitles about the heir of a Macau casino fortune losing his inheritance. When it came time to land, the pilot lowered the landing gear and touched the plane down. Immediately upon landing, the plane began to vibrate heavily. It literally sounded like the overhead bins were going to detach from the plane. After about 45 seconds of uncontrollable vibration, the plane reached a taxi speed and we slowly made our way to the gate.

After disembarking, we claimed our bags (rather uneventful) and headed out to meet our driver. After about an hour and 5 phone calls to our local contact, we gave up on the driver and hopped in a cab. Our local contact was kind of to tell the cab driver in Cantonese that we needed to be taken to the JW Marriot in Shenzhen. We arrived 30 minutes later at our hotel glad to have survived a 70MPH dodge and dash in a tiny geo metro sized cab.

After being shown to my posh room, I reflected on the day’s events. The first 3 days of my trip I was extremely impressed with the shiny new China that I saw in Beijing, but for the last 8 hours or so, I had seen the side of China that is struggling to grow up (i.e. the imbalanced quality at the airport, the different standards of a domestic airline, and the cab driver who was obviously used to driving in “war zone” traffic. It seemed while I was getting my business education in China, they were in the midst of getting theirs.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Real Life Business Education: China & Hong Kong – Shiny Imported Cars

The second stop of the day was to a second vendor who we do slightly more business with. After the old-school meeting we had at the previous location I was ready for more unique China Experiences. This is where my Chinese Business Education took a turn. What I noticed immediately with this second vendor was how nice there offices and cars were. Also, the size of their staff seemed to be inflated as well. As I began to notice these things, I thought back to a few months earlier when this particular vendor had quoted some very high prices when we were in a pinch. I think I know where the money went…

And this seems to be the way it goes in China. The man who pays the first price he is offered in China is a fool of fools. Just before leaving for the second vendor visit of the day, I had an opportunity to go the Silk Market. The Silk Market is a 5 story market place where individual sellers can’t rent booths and sell to the general public. You can buy everything from knock off clothes, to chess boards, to music as long as you have the patience to negotiate a price because this place was all about the bartering. I bought a few things, and the final price that I paid was approximately 20% of the asking price- and I probably got ripped off. The takeaway is that while the Silk Market is a bit extreme because of its size and the number of tourists walking through, it really isn’t that far off of the way business is done in China.

Rewind to the business dealings where my company didn’t push back on the pricing and you have a fine explanation of how the vendor can afford beautiful office space, nice cars, and a large staff with lots of “marketing” people.

Business lesson learned.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Real Life Business Education: China & Hong Kong – Tea Time

My second day in Beijing was dedicated to two visits to external vendors that I have been working with for about the last year, but have never met in person.

My driver picked us up at around 7AM and we promptly left for the first vendor’s office. We trudged through the typical Beijing traffic for about 45 minutes before ending up in an area just outside of the Beijing Airport (NE section of the city). As we made our way down side streets, we began to notice a bit more “culture” than we had seen in either the business district or the area around the hotel.

Our driver kept glancing down at the address for the vendor that an admin had translated into Chinese as he was driving in what appeared to be circles. After about 10 minutes of sporadic turns and confusion, the driver pulled off on a side street and asked a taxi driver for directions. About 5 minutes later we pulled into a 10 story building and made our way up to our vendor’s office.

Upon entering, we were immediately whisked into the Vice GM’s office by my contact. My contact (our account Manager) translated for the Vice GM as he talked to us about the core values of the business that he had helped start. As he explained in a soft Mandarin, he served us an amazing green tea in very small cups- constantly refilling as the minutes went by. I think I must have had 12 cups of tea by the time the meeting was over. Towards the end, we talked about some minor process improvement changes that I had thought about implementing, took a brief tour of their facility, and were on our way.

Just before leaving, the account manager offered to take us on a tour of the Great Wall. After trying 3 different times to explain that our schedule was too tight for any touring of any sort, I simply acknowledged the offer, and said thank you. I think that was the right way to handle it.

After the first meeting, we loaded ourselves into the van and headed back to our office. Next stop in the China Business Education was a second vendor and an organized company dinner…

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Real Life Business Education: China & Hong Kong – Work begins in Beijing

I arrived at our Beijing office at approximately 8:45AM this morning, got set up with a desk, and walked into my first meeting at 10:00AM. One of the primary reasons for this trip was to coordinate process improvement with a team that interacts with my team and several of our partners in the US offices. I originally set the meeting up with the person who I have often interacted with and her boss. This meeting shed some light on a cultural difference that existed between my office and the Beijing office. Let the business education begin.

What I found is that the manager is fully accountable in our Beijing office, whereas individual contributors are empowered and accountable in the US offices. As the meeting went on, my primary contact hardly said a word. In fact, she even declined future meetings on the same topic. This seemed odd to me given the corporate culture I’m used to, but when in Beijing… The goal of this initial meeting was to have introductions and map out the current process that I wanted to improve. Mission accomplished.

After a nice lunch at a Cantonese restaurant, I spent the rest of the afternoon meeting with various people in the Beijing office including the Finance director. The finance director explained the intricacies of getting money into and out of China and the difference in business climate. It turns out that our company isn’t nearly as well known in China as they are in the rest of the world. After the last meeting, we called our driver and headed back to the hotel. We later ate dinner at a Taiwanese restaurant with one of the Beijing colleagues where turtle soup and snake were on the menu- we stayed mostly vegetarian. After that we wrapped up the first day of my Chinese business education.