China Daily: Return of the ’sea turtles’

Date:2008-1-21 Author:China Daily

For years Liu Chuanzhi, former head of Lenovo, China’s biggest PC maker, has been close friends with investment banker Liu Erfei. But he never imagined the Merrill Lynch matchmaker would one day bond his company with the pioneer of the industry, IBM.

The $1.25 billion purchase of IBM’s personal computer division in 2005 was at the time the biggest overseas acquisition by a Chinese company. But it was just the beginning, as more Chinese enterprises, fuelled by China’s robust economy, are going global.

In 2006, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Ltd completed the world’s biggest initial share sale, raising as much as $21.9 billion. Again, Merrill Lynch, with Liu Erfei as the chairman of its operation in China, was one of the investment banks that managed the global offering.

China’s soaring economy has presented unprecedented opportunities for investors both at home and abroad. But many companies feel they lack enough talent to seize these opportunities. But a growing number of Chinese who have studied or worked overseas are being lured back by opportunities in China.

According to Wang Huiyao, vice-chairman of the Western Returned Scholars Association, the returnees, sometimes called "sea turtles", are playing an increasingly important role in China. They are helping Chinese enterprises go out, multinational companies come in, and domestic enterprises flourish.

"They can connect China and the outside world. They are the best translators of both the Chinese and Western management culture," says Wang, who himself was one of the earliest MBAs educated in Canada before coming back to China in the early 1990s.

As far back as the 1980s, multinational corporations would hire managers from their home countries to lead operations in China. Things have changed now, and a growing number of native Chinese are holding top positions. According to Wang, returnees have participated in nearly all the multinational companies operating in China, and many of them are now CEOs of the world’s top 500 companies in China.

Those who grew up in China and are equipped with Western education naturally know the Chinese market and Chinese people better. Jack Gao, the former president of Microsoft China, told Wang that the improved relations between the corporate sector and the government is one of his proudest achievements of his two and half years with Microsoft.

In some cases, the returnees have caused a ripple effect by introducing advanced management concepts and sharing their experiences with those who stayed in China. For instance, Sun Yuhong, a Harvard educated senior supervisor at Hill and Knowlton (China), offered crisis management training to government spokespeople in 2004.

Some Chinese have returned and opted to do business school in China. China barely had any business education three decades ago, but now there are over 100 business schools in China, with over tens of thousands of students graduated with a business degree each year. Teaching positions in these schools are dominated by returnees. For instance, over half of the faculty of the prestigious Guanghua School of Management at Peking University are returnees. Most of them are leading the business school now.

The talent is also boosting China’s flourishing private sector. Most of the family owned businesses in China started from humble beginning in the 1980s. The head of these companies were either the local community leaders or business-minded villagers. While first generation entrepreneurs are known for their experience and passion, few of them have had any business education.

But they sent their children overseas to learn business, and many of them now have come back. Tu Hongyan, now the vice president of silk maker Hangzhou Wensli, inherited the company from her mother, who started it in 1975.

Tu’s mother made the company the largest silk exporter in China, but Tu, who spent a year in Japan, is now on the way to building the brand into the "Hermes of China", as she calls it. And the daughter of Zheng Youquan, a wig maker located in the obscure central China’s Henan Province, started a fashion salon in Wangfujing, Beijing’s modern shopping area, selling high end products.

Those Chinese who have returned to China still make up the minority, Wang said in his book Returning Times. But as the economy develops at such a rapid pace, there will be more and more Chinese who will come back and play an important role in China’s economy, he says.