Born in Guangdong in 1957, Li Dongsheng became a technician with TTK Corp. In 1985 TTK was renamed TCL and in 1987 Li was sent to visit Philips headquarters in Europe. He was shocked to see that the Dutch firm’s R&D department had more than 10,000 people. TCL had just 12. Li rose through the ranks and in 1996 he became chairman and CEO of TCL Group.
The international approach
His vision was to create a multinational consumer electronics firm. “For China’s economy to be stronger in the future, we must develop our own world class companies,” he told Southern People Weekly Magazine. In 1999 he began selling TVs to the Vietnamese market. Things did not go well and Li came under pressure to withdraw. Instead, he vowed to turn the business around. It became a test case and Li was vindicated when he was able to show a profit in the first half of 2000. He celebrated with an article in the company magazine entitled: ‘Keep on fighting, we are indomitable’.
Li has been an acquisitive leader, buying Thomson of France – another TV-maker – and Alcatel’s mobile phone handset business. Integration issues have hampered the attempts to ‘go global’ and Li admits he has sometimes wondered whether the international spree was a “mistake”. But as with Vietnam, he refused to give up. By 2007 there were signs of a turnaround.
Need to know
In the first half of 2009, TCL had sales of Rmb17 billion and net profit of Rmb98.1 million. Most hearteningly for Li, income from overseas operations was up 53% in the second quarter over the first.
On his bookshelf
Next to his Jack Welch business books, Li keeps the works of Zeng Guofan – the Qing Dynasty general and scholar who crushed the Taiping Rebellion. Asked whether it was contradictory to read these two authors, he replied: “Yes, but we must learn to reconcile.”
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