BOOKCASE : China CEO: Voices of Experience from 20 International Business Leaders

• Juan Antonio Fernandez & Laurie Underwood • Wiley • $35

It says much about our general understanding of doing business in China that book like this should prove not only fascinating but downright handy as well. For China CEO is pretty straightforward read.
At times its repetitive sing-song “he says”/“she says” style grates. The tone betrays the book’s origins as series of formulaic question and answer sessions. Its value lies in just who these authors interviewed: 20 China-based executives from multinationals ranging from Bayer, British Petroleum and Coca-Cola to Siemens, Sony and Unilever. Plus eight consultants.
These guys – and it is mainly guys at this level – know their onions. Their companies have spearheaded recent Western inroads into the tantalising Chinese market. Several of these individuals have been permanently based in China for the thick end of decade and, together, these companies have amassed 512 years of experience in China.
Paolo Gasparrini, now L’Oréal president and managing director for China, recalls the day he arrived from Hong Kong back in 1996 carrying briefcase of cosmetic products. He didn’t even have permission to rent office space. His company has since injected US$150 million into its operations in China and exports from there to other Asian markets.
Pretty much all of the execs interviewed ranked people issues as their most tricky and important challenge. Most have wrestled with the concept of guanxi, Chinese-style blend of networking and exchanges of favours which serves as complex form of social currency. Sometimes – and mistakenly – seen through Western eyes as uncomfortably close to palm greasing and corruption, guanxi, the book’s authors argue, means that “the international manager often finds himself operating in friendly and personal (rather than professional) capacity in the normal course of doing business”.
Indeed, it is these close personal ties that both frustrate and delight the bejesus out of the people interviewed for this book. That, plus the vast ambition of many thrusting young Chinese wannabe senior executives who expect, and often demand, rapid career advancement and for whom many international companies have learnt to invent grandiose new job titles in an attempt to signal their pleasure at having them on board. For, like many other parts of the world, top talent in China is hard to attract and hold.
There will come day when we’ll look back and marvel that such book was even necessary. Until then, read China CEO. – Ruth Le Pla

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