Archive for May, 2011

“China is Different” – Business Insights and Lessons from My Consulting Engagement in China

May 24th, 2011 by under China, Consulting. No Comments.

Hong Kong Island lit up at night as seen from the ferry travelling from Kowloon back to HK Central District. The tallest building is the HK Monetary Authority tower and the criss cross building is the Bank of China building. Source: Stephen Huie

While I’m typing, I’m listening to a live cover of Carole King and overlooking the channel between Hong Kong and Kowloon.  I was surprised how much Hong Kong reminds me of San Francisco Chinatown, which I visited frequently growing up.  The mix of Cantonese and English is familiar, as are the narrow streets and waves of people – yet this place also sets me off balance since I’ve been use to speaking in Mandarin for my past week and a half in mainland China.  Unlike mainland China, the various pedistrian overpasses connecting office buildings, the well lit underground paths, and the fresh air breezing off the harbor water make the pedestrian experience refreshing (at least when it’s not terribly  muggy).  Regardless, in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, you can experience the afterlife of a sardine for the price of a subway ticket.


During the spring, our team met in Washington DC for an intensive work weekend and then spent the reminder of our semester meeting virtually to discuss project development.

CIBER Global Business Project

I’m here on assignment in China as the project leader for a team of five MBAs from different US business schools.  As a member of the Center for International Business and Education Research (CIBER), the Smith School creates the opportunities for students to exercise their skills on a real consulting project for multinational companies.

Throughout the Spring semester, I’ve been working on a business development and buyer insights project for a large agribusiness firm that is looking to enter the Chinese forestry industry.

We spent our time in the US researching the market from afar, interviewing US forestry experts and stakeholders, and setting up interviews for our in country project.  We also communicated with our client to keep them up to date with our progress.

We spent the first week in Shanghai and Beijing meeting with university professors, government administrators, third party certification stakeholders, and forest management companies.

Speaking with furniture retailers on Lockhart Rd., a home design and furnishing strip, in Hong Kong's Wan Chai district. Source: Stephen Huie

This week, I’m in Hong Kong with one of my teammates to speak with executives from a major forest management firm in China.  The other half of the team is in Zhejiang Province speaking with professors there and visiting small forest farms.

Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll meet back up in Shanghai to consolidate our work and pound out the final deliverable.

Some Insights

Unlike my trip to India last winter, I can’t share too much about our project or specific business insights, but I will try to generalize some of the important messages I’ve been hearing from our interviews and from my observations

  • China is Different [from other fast growing economies]” said one of our interviewees.  Having heard this mantra repeated before in many places (“[insert country name] is different”), including business school, it became a somewhat meaningless insight because it seemed so obvious.  In India, many executives shared with us specific business examples of how this dictum held for India.  Now that I’m working on my own project in a specific market, I’m beginning to see specific examples of my own.
  • A corrollary of this is that regional, market, ecological, and climate specific problems demand specific solutions.  Before business school, “solutions” seemed like a meaningless word used by advertisers for corporate business.  Now that I’ve been grounded in specific market and better understand the obstacles to growth and profitiability, I better understand solutions as holistic customized services that fit particular needs.
  • China’s approach to economic growth is still changing.  To me, one of the most surprising developments in the past few years is that the Chinese central government is extending land reform to include the forest sector by breaking up collective ownership of land.  A little more than 30 years ago, China began to allow private households and large collectives to own “lease rights” to the land they worked.  The land did (and is still) owned by the government, but the creation of these 50 or 70 year leases allowed farmers more flexibility to manage their land.  Forests continued to be owned by the state and by large collectives, but for the past few years, the provincial governments have been dissolving collectively owned forests and given lease rights to individual households so that they could decide what to do with the land.  This is essentially privatization without calling it such.
  • Relationships in China are important.  I’m not talking about “guanxi” (personal interactions, informal relationships, and access) in terms of favoritism.  I’m talking about being close to stakeholders, buyers, and sellers, and having a good understanding of their values.  For example, given the privatization of collective forests, any firm in the Chinese forestry industry must be able to communicate and negotiate effectively with multiple individuals and collectives.  The more fragmented the market becomes, the greater the number of values and viewpoints have to be juggled and balanced.

I’ve learned much more about project management, building a collaborative team, and managing virtual meetings but I’ll save that for a different post.

Pictures and Such

I go back to the mainland tomorrow and will visit friends in Guangzhou and Taiwan for a week before heading back to the states, so it will probably be a while before my next post.  For now, here’s some pictures of some of the fun we’ve been able to squeeze in during our trip.

… it’s a Sade cover of “Smooth Operator….”  I’m so excited to see her (and John Legend) twice this summer in Chicago and Oakland!!!

Our first weekend in Shanghai, we went to the Diamond Track and Field meet. We saw the famous Shanghai native Liu Xiang win the 100m hurdles. Liu was too injured to hurdle in the last Olympics, but the Shanghainese are still crazy for him. Here was the 400m hurldes, I think... Source: Stephen Huie


In Beijing, we took a trip to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Source: Stephen Huie


I really fell in love with this yogurt drink in Beijing....I drank 3 one evening and then discovered a bunch of stalls in an alley off the Wangfujin shopping area the next day and drank 7 of them.......


Hong Kong at night from the Peak. The cable car tram up the mountain was very steep (I swear it was greater than 45 degrees at one point).


“If everything seems to be under control, you are not going fast enough”

May 5th, 2011 by under Reflections. No Comments.

The moment that cannot come soon enough..... Source: Wolfgang Kumm/European Pressphoto Agency

…such was the quote posted by my fellow graduate assistant and 2nd Year MBA Nabeel in one of his first blogs of the 2010-11 school year.   When he was a first year MBA, a second year told him that……….when I read it, it sounded like a nice platitude at the time, but now I know how true it is…..and I sometimes wonder if I should begin slowing down because I’m flying headlong along the edge of the cliff!!!

Those Halcyon Days of First Semester When the Most I had to Worry about was Lele’s killer exams…….

I feel like I spent my first semester getting the lay of the land at Smith.  As a career switcher who hadn’t worked in the for-profit sector before, I was anxious that I would have trouble getting a handle on the material.  I came to learn skills and I wanted to focus on getting the most out of my MBA.  After participating in many student organizations in undergraduate, I refrained from taking too much responsibility during the first semester and attended club events, workshops, and panels, rather than help organize them.  I decided not to apply for the social venture consulting program, which I was so excited about.  It was all so new, and I wanted to find my footing first.

I spent the first semester focused on the internship search and secured a position at Kraft in Shopper Insights and I participated in the Venture Capital Investment Competition.

I believe I succeded in building a strong foundation for future learning.  During the summer, I traveled to India and got to see the entrepreneurialism and growth of new ventures and old business houses.

Sartre said that when you’re walking along the edge of a cliff, you’re not worried whether you’re going to fall, you’re worried whether you’re going to jump…

I feel I'm going so fast, I hardly have any time to slow down and contemplate where I am..... Source: Business Insider

During the second semester, I wanted to be alot more ambitious.  Having already secured an internship, I increased my course load to 9 classes, intending to squeeze in more electives.

I’m also participating in three business competitions: Smith Consulting Club Competition (1st place); Net Impact Pioneer Employer Competition (submitted as of last Friday – whew!); and the Google Online Marketing Challenge (still in progress).  If I had more time, I would compete in others too!

I applied to more of the global business opportunities offered by Smith’s CIBER program.  I wanted to work on consulting projects in Uruguay and in China.  Unfortunately, I was not accepted to the Uruguay teams; however, I did become part of the CIBER program and I’m now the project manger for a team of MBAs from other business schools working on a marketing and industry analysis of the Chinese forestry industry.

I also decided to become more involved in student organizations.  I was elected to the Supply Chain and Operations Club as VP of Strategic Communications and to the Hispanic MBA Association as the VP of External Relations.  In the former, I’ll reorganize and build our alumni network along with our network of current students to enhance access to professional development experiences and informational interviews.  In the latter, we’re planning a Latin American business forum in coordination with other area business schools for next year.

Luckily, I still have my graduate assistantship at Smith’s Office of Marketing Communications and I’ve been renewed for next year so I can continue this blog with you.

Only one week left until I leave for China for the in-country portion of my consulting engagement…a week of break to see friends living in Asia…and then off to Chicago for Kraft Foods!…..also, I “get” to take my finals early since I’ll be leaving early!

This semester is going so quickly…..everything is moving so quickly and almost out of control….I guess I’m just about reaching my stride….