Dong Mingzhu was born in 1954. After getting a master’s degree from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, she became an academic in Nanjing. In 1990 she quit her post and went with her eight year-old son to Zhuhai, where she obtained a job as a salesperson with an air-conditioning factory. She told China Entrepreneur magazine that she would not have taken such a radical step had it not been for the death of her husband – he would never have permitted her to go to Zhuhai.
Dong quickly discovered that a key job for a salesperson was to make sure distributors paid up, as defaulting was then almost standard business practice. Dong pulled off a coup when she recovered Rmb420,000 of accounts receivable, and caught the attention of a rival air-con maker, Gree, which hired her that year. In her first year her sales reached Rmb16 million. She was transferred back to Nanjing – a coastal city known as one of the ‘furnaces’ of China for its climate – and her sales jumped again to Rmb36.5 million. In 1996 she was made deputy general manager and guided Gree successfully through a damaging price war.
Need to know
When Dong joined Gree it made just 20,000 units per year. By last year its sales had reached Rmb50 billion and it had become the world’s biggest air-con maker. In terms of household sales, it ranks first (Haier is second, Midea third), and around 10% of its sales now come from office air-con units – where the technology requirements tend to be higher. The firm has 35,000 staff at production bases in Zhuhai, Danyang, Chongqing and Brazil. It now exports to 40 countries, with foreign sales exceeding Rmb5 billion. In emerging markets like Vietnam and Pakistan it sells under its Gree brand. In Europe and the US it currently makes units for local brands (i.e. an OEM strategy). A recently signed JV with Daikin of Japan is designed to further improve the company’s R&D capabilities.
How to be cool
Dong – who is currently the state-owned firm’s president and vice-chairman – says the success of the Gree model is based on the way it manages its relationship with its distributors. In an industry first, she even persuaded local partners to pay before delivery (her competitors had deemed it impossible). The UK’s Daily Telegraph calls Dong “one of the leading icons of China’s economic revolution”.
In her own words
She puts much of her success down to will power – and that she has not taken a day off in 20 years. Her goal is to turn Gree into a global brand. “We want the whole world to trust Gree air-conditioners, as people trust Mercedes-Benz and BMW.”
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