Chinese Character

Nuclear Zhang

A foreign multinational managed with Chinese characteristics

What does it take to be a successful CEO of a foreign firm in China? Well, perhaps you have to be Chinese for a start.

Zhang Jianwei – the CEO of Bombardier China – is described by his rivals as a “nuclear weapon” (it is a compliment, by the way) and it is not hard to see why.

Over the last decade Bombardier has successfully ridden China’s railway investment boom. In the process it has sold 120 high speed trains, 380 high grade railway passenger cars, much of the rolling stock used on the Qinghai-Tibet line, the signal system for the Wuhan-Guangzhou high speed railway, and the trains for the unmanned rapid transit system at Beijing Airport.

The Southern People Weekly writes that much of Bombardier’ssuccess can be put down to Zhang’s understanding of local business conditions, and his use of “typical Chinese style business etiquette.”

It helps he’s an unadulterated workaholic too – living a life with “no nights, no weekends and no holidays.”

The Chinese-born manager has been with the Montreal-based company since 1995 and he took control of the railway equipment business in 1999.

Success there saw him promoted to run Bombardier’s entire China business in 2005. Since then he has focused on the firm’s aerospace division – the company, after all, is probably best known internationally for its aircraft, particularly Learjets.

What makes Zhang’s success all the more unusual, says the newspaper, is that he doesn’t come from a prominent family or have any government connections. His father was a university professor, and his path to the top a meritocratic one. He graduated from Tianjin University as a ‘national triple A’ student and then studied for an MBA and doctorate in Canada – after which he joined Bombardier.

The newspaper thinks him unusual in other ways too. Most of Bombardier’s orders are government-related, but Zhang has refused to employ middlemen or sales staff with government connections. So the firm’s relationships with the Chinese government, it says, “are all accomplished purely by Zhang’s legwork and eloquence, accompanied by his sincerity and persistence.”

Zhang is one of 200 people within Bombardier to hold the title ‘president’. But being a president in China carries a bit more weight than most.

Zhang enjoys a direct line to the boss, Pierre Beaudoin in Montreal, for example. And he is not afraid to use it. “Sometimes in the midst of negotiations I have to wake up the big boss at 3am and ask for authorisation. Many other managers would have scruples about bothering the big boss late at night. If I do the same, orders would be gone,” he says.

Longevity in his role helps too, and Zhang has held his position longer than his peer group. The Weekly regards it as a special situation, different to that of many multinational companies, who change their “chief representatives” every three to five years.

Back to Zhang’s Chinese methods. At its most basic, says the newspaper, this can be seen in his approach to business meetings. He always arrives ahead of time – to show respect to the client – and uses both hands when greeting them with a handshake. He will walk guests out of his office, or even down to street level.

In negotiations he also prefers the Chinese way. “Verbal contracts are sometimes more efficient in China than the law or written contracts,” he says.

But Zhang is aware that, as he straddles different ethnic and corporate cultures, he risks being seen as partisan by both sides.

He recalls that in one meeting he advocated lowering the price of a product sold in the Chinese marketplace. This led some foreign colleagues to tell him he was “nationalistically” putting the interests of China before those of the company.

On the flipside, when he chose to come back to China and work for a foreign firm, many locals considered him a sellout, or fake foreigner, as he puts it. “Yes, I have a foreign passport, but my love for China is no less than yours,” Zhang recalls telling them. “And I told my foreign colleagues that though I am Chinese, my loyalty to Bombardier is more powerful than theirs.”

Zhang – who rises at 6.30am to a breakfast of coffee and cigarettes – has been offered other jobs, but says he has turned them all down.

In fact, he dislikes being called a ‘professional manager’ at all, because he believes the group often consists of job-hoppers – whereas he has worked for a single firm for the last 14 years.

As the various viewpoints contained in the Weekly’s article suggest, Zhang is unafraid to voice an opinion or two. He diagnoses short-termism as a key failing amongst many multinational management systems, for instance. He reckons that when a manager knows he will be in a country for a fixed period of time, he will tend to focus on the low hanging fruit, so as to achieve quick success and improve promotion prospects. That can mean that better projects – which may have a longer gestation time – get dropped. No doubt his management colleagues in Montreal are keen to dicuss the point with him.

So what are the challenges he now faces?

Bombardier’s website describes its products as “state of the art trains and planes”. In the case of the trains, China has proven a goldmine for the Canadian company. And with rail spending continuing to soar – China will invest $102.5 billion in its rail network this year alone – that market is only going to grow in future.

But Zhang admits that the bigger challenge has been in aerospace. Prior to his assuming responsibility for the area, Bombardier had rejected what the Weekly calls a “golden opportunity” to cooperate with Aviation Industry Corporation of China. It has been playing catch-up ever since, and Zhang’s investment in local research and development is designed to regain the initiative.

For Zhang the other challenge will be to keep bringing in the deals. It may prove tough to maintain his track record in the face of mounting competition from both foreign and domestic players.

Perhaps the best metaphor for Zhang’s outlook can be found in the garden of his Beijing villa. He tells the newspaper that he has mixed emotions when he watches his flowers grow: “Like them, it becomes difficult to reach higher when you have arrived at a certain height.”


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