European Careers and Leadership in China: Insights on doing business in China

From left to right: Wolfgang Illing, Claire Pouly, Thomas Guillemaud, Saurabh Gandhi.

The China-Europe Business Studies (CEBS) students in Shanghai had the opportunity to organize this year’s ‘European Careers and Leadership in China’ Event; inviting speakers to shed more light on how to start a career in China. The evening featured four speakers, Wolfgang, Claire, Thomas, and Saurabh, all from various disciplines and backgrounds.

Wolfgang shared his inspiring story of starting a business in China without any prior knowledge about China, known as Saucepan. The entrepreneur’s passion for the food and beverages industry and international experiences working in large hospitality corporations allowed him to discover a market opportunity for healthy and sustainable food in Shanghai. He found turning market research into actual business ideas a complex process. Nevertheless, with agility, adaption and changing to market needs, his idea penetrated the market. Other challenges associated with starting a business in China for Wolfgang was the lack of support of resources and security that are usually at disposal to established businesses. Trust between suppliers and employee loyalty are the continuous challenges entrepreneurs might face in China.

Before coming to China, Claire has always said never to go to China but soon found herself taking on the challenge to relocate herself to the, for her, unknown China. As Account Director at TBWA Greater China, she is responsible for accounts such as Twinings Tea and AirBnB. The daily struggles she encounters are timing, language and cultural differences. However, Claire stresses that these differences can be conquered. In fact, Claire states that the tiniest effort from a foreigner such as speaking a few Chinese words, is greatly appreciated by Chinese people and can immediately affect and advance the (business) relationship. In line with Wolfgang, Claire has also found that loyalty and trust between employees in large corporations are one of the greatest challenges she has encountered in her professional career. The biggest contrast she observed between westerners and Chinese employees is the high level of curiosity and eagerness of Chinese employees, which is a great asset in her line of work. Claire advises foreign professionals to adapt, show effort and not to be afraid.

Thomas founded his digital agency, IT Consultis, in Shanghai right after graduation and is now working with clients such as Budweiser, Zara and Saucepan. The opportunity surfaced through his large network as Thomas said: “Why not?” Over-delivering, fast adaption to the market and understanding the client’s needs are essential and allowed his business to advance quickly. Thomas notes that hiring European employees instead of local employees can be a more valuable investment due to the low retention ratio in China. He counters this with a clear payroll strategy of continuous, structural and frequent growth in salary. This not only allows him to retain talent but also motivate employees. This strategy shows the great extent of adaptation one must indulge when doing business in China.

Saurabh’s childhood fascination for China made him decline a job offer from PWC New York. Overcoming the pressure of his parents to accept the offer from PWC, he faced his Chinese adventure. Soon he realized that integrating into the Chinese culture was more difficult than anticipated; even buying toilet paper was a complex matter. After failing to set up his own business, Saurabh found his way to Infosys where his capabilities are stretched and challenged continuously. He too experienced that large corporations have struggles with the lack of loyalty of Chinese employee and notes that the smallest increase in salary can already be a reason for resignation. “For Chinese people success does not exist. Success is measured in money, hence more money means more success.” Saurabh finally notes that freedom in doing business in China is what he enjoys most. “When doing business with Europeans you need a 20-page contract, when doing business with Americans you need a 200-page contract, when doing business with Chinese all you need is a handshake.”

The event has given us some great insights and awareness on the current business environment in China. The increasing salary and overflow of opportunities have made Chinese people more demanding. China is a big country with a distinctive culture and history; hence, one might feel overwhelmed with the idea of doing business in or with China.

Therefore, Claire advises from her own experience “do not be afraid and never say never.” In order to make your venture with China work, you have to adapt, not the other way around and realize that making and nurturing relationships (Guanxi) can take upon a lot of time and efforts but is of utmost importance in the Chinese culture. Most importantly, don’t forget that at the end of the day, the Chinese market is no different from any other market: it is all about supply and demand.

This inspiring event closed with dinner and drinks with the event participants and students of the CEBS Master Program.

– Xin Xin Hu & Nadine Niknafs

This article is also published on the BenCham -Benelux Chamber of Commerce in China- website (click here) and ESSCA -program partner university- website (click here).

Special acknowledgment to the participants of this event:
Mr. Wolfgang Illing, Co-Founder of Saucepan
Mrs. Claire Pouly, Account Director at TBWA Greater China
Mr. Thomas Guillemaud, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of IT Consultis
Mr. Saurabh Gandhi, Consultant at Infosys

This event would not have taken place if not for the investment of the AMS CEBS students Bénédicte Millet, Nadine Niknafs, Maxime Paul, Ann-Jacqueline Bohnen, Juliette Marque, Marius Greffier and Ross Shepherd; and event moderator Maximilian Rech, Program Director ESSCA Shanghai.