In-Depth Interview: Alan Beebe of AmCham China

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AmCham China President Alan Beebe (pronounced "BEE-bee") may have grown up as a sheltered kid in Nebraska, but he's no country bumpkin. In fact, he's quick to mention fellow Nebraskan Warren Buffett, who hasn't done too bad for himself either.

Beebe's consulting career has spanned Asia and the US, and he's clocked 14 years in China. Fluent in Chinese language and culture, Beebe often sprinkles speeches to staff with Chinese slogans.

Before taking the helm of AmCham China in March, Beebe advised multinationals for EY China and, prior to that, co-led the China Greentech Initiative. He moved to China in 2002 with IBM’s business services arm helping state-owned enterprises such as China Telecom modernize their operations.

This issue focuses on innovation. How do you think China can grow domestic innovation?

Innovation has been an ongoing theme of China’s government and companies for the past decade or longer. But in China the idea of innovation tends to get overused or it’s thought of in a very narrow sense, in terms of products or new technologies. That’s definitely part of it, but there’s a lot of innovation possible in business models, operations and services. If China really want to move to a services economy innovation is essential.

It’s easy to say, if you opened up a million more restaurants, China could have more GDP coming from services. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about much more complex services – a real services economy. There’s a lot US companies can bring to the table from that point of view. I think many of our member companies are keen to expand their innovation capabilities and contribute to China’s innovation agenda, but they need the right environment to do that. Our member companies, large and small, have a lot to offer.

Can you give an example?

I’ll pick a simple example, which I think everyone can relate to: Apple is building an incredible services platform. Is the iPhone a product or a service? It’s both. In fact, I’ve read they’re thinking about a model where you don’t even buy an iPhone. You lease it. You receive a service, and that service includes an iPhone. So that’s one example, where you basically integrate a product with services to create a new customer experience. That’s innovation.

Another example is GE. They are experimenting with a new division called Current. The idea behind Current is that customers don’t necessarily want to just buy a bunch of expensive equipment. What they really want is a solution. If you’re trying to save energy, buying hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment may not get you the energy efficiency that you need. So, Current is rethinking the value proposition for different types of customers. They could install, for example, new equipment to improve the energy efficiency of an industrial plant. But instead of installing the equipment and walking away, they can set up a long-term services contract based on performance. And it could include GE employees who are specialized and know how to extract the energy savings better than anybody. 

Then it becomes a much more long-term relationship with the customer. It could be applied in so many different areas, and I think the US is really strong in that. You have to innovate in terms of what is the actual value that you’re trying to deliver, you have to innovate in financing, you have to innovate in terms of all the operations that go into implementing something that gives an actual result as opposed to just selling a piece of hardware. There’s a lot that I think the US could do in that area. It kind of bleeds innovation into services.

How did you arrive in China?

I think like many foreigners coming to China for me was partially planned, partially accidental. Coming from Nebraska, you know, it’s not as if I were widely traveled. I had never been on an airplane until I was 19.

My first time on a plane was for a work abroad program in New Zealand. It was a long first flight, but a great first country. It was a very soft introduction to living abroad. No language barrier, people are incredibly nice, and so on. I worked for a construction company in Auckland, mixing cement and later hitch-hiked across the country. It was great. After that, I did my junior year abroad in Finland.

In Finland I stumbled on a great work abroad program called AIESEC. When I went back to Nebraska, of course there wasn’t a chapter, so a friend and I started one at the University of Nebraska, in Lincoln. Through that program basically you find a work opportunity for a foreign student and then you can reciprocate.

Long story short, I ended up in Taiwan through AIESEC. That’s where I got my interest in China and things Chinese. I loved it. I went back to the US, studied Chinese during graduate school, came back out to Asia and Taiwan for a few more years, and here I am. It wasn’t an accident that I’ve spent so many years here.

How did you get your consulting career started?

When I graduated from Yale, I thought, “OK now life’s gonna be a gravy train. This’ll be easy.” I had a rude awakening. It was just a lot harder to get my career started than I thought it’d be. At any rate, I joined a Taiwanese company called the TECO Group – they’re a small version of GE in Taiwan. I was special assistant to the Chairman. I did that for a few years, and then decided to move to Hong Kong.

I had a great break in Hong Kong with AT Kearney, an excellent management consulting firm based out of Chicago. In a way that’s where I got my professional career started. And those were good times. That was right as the Hong Kong handover was happening and the whole region was booming, right before the Asian economic crisis. So that's how I got my start professionally in consulting.

The consulting world in Asia is a pretty small community. And then foreigners in consulting firms in Asia is even smaller. Through that community, if you build up your reputation for doing great client work and managing a business, it doesn’t take long to know most others in the industry. So I never really had to look for a job after that. It was always through people I knew. I’m always thankful for AT Kearney giving me that start.

Was AmCham China similar to any prior clients you’d had?

Yes and no. Yes in the sense that AmCham and our members’ environment is going through a lot of change just like clients I’ve had in the past. But I’ve never consulted for a not-for-profit, so that’s new.

What attracted you to the role of President of AmCham China?

This role is the culmination of many experiences. I was joking with a friend lately that this is a job where I can finally use my graduate degree. I studied international relations and Chinese (at Yale). I did not do an MBA, which is probably why I had a one or two year slow start out of grad school, as opposed to someone who did a Harvard MBA who has a very predictable first stop. AmCham China is a very unique opportunity to bring my private sector experience to a not-for-profit, government-oriented policy world. It’s a great convergence. I was totally excited about that opportunity.

What was your first priority once you started the job?

Being a consultant at heart, this is what I’ve learned: when you go into a new environment, you need to quickly understand the landscape, opportunities, challenges and many personalities involved. And I do have a very good tool kit I’ve developed doing client work over the past 20 years. Strategy, operations improvement, transformational programs and things like that that I’ve designed and implemented over the years for many different clients in different situations.

So when I joined I quickly introduced a three-month project called “Health Check” to take the pulse of AmCham China. To understand what works, what doesn’t, and how well we are serving our members. I made sure it wasn’t just internal either; our Health Check team interviewed 40-plus member companies to understand what we are doing well, and where we can improve.

The idea behind Health Check was, number one, to get me up to speed, just so I could understand what our priorities are and the many personalities involved, both within our organization and among our member companies and many stakeholders. It’s gotten me up to speed pretty fast. I now appreciate how complex AmCham really is, and the great job our team does managing competing priorities.

In China, things don’t change every 10 years. They change every 18 months. So we have to have a way to keep pace with change, and in some ways be ahead of it. Sometimes you can do that off the cuff, but sometimes as an organization it’s good to take a breath and take stock of where things are at, what’s changed, and how to respond.

One of the things that I’ve observed and experienced in China, just almost in any organization, and I think AmCham is no different, is that people have great ideas, or they have a lot of things on their mind. The questions are, what’s the channel for the great ideas to rise to the surface, and how can those ideas be socialized and implemented in a way that’s not threatening?

Health Check has helped to crystallize the mission of AmCham and what are our strategic priorities are for the next one to two years, building on the excellent work by my predecessor Mark Duval. But with our priorities in place, the next question is how do we define success? One ways to do that is with KPIs (key performance indicators). Not too many, just the important ones that can really make a difference. With KPIs we can go into any of our groups – whether it’s communications, membership, member operations, training or visa – and you can take the pulse.

What are your top KPIs?

I have a handful that I try to stay focused on. They include member satisfaction, to be financially sound, and employee satisfaction – influenced by the great culture and energy of AmCham. These three are related in fact, and each KPI feeds on the other. Another is those areas where the power of AmCham can have a larger impact on the community, such as advocacy around major policy issues. It’s hard to quantify success in advocacy, but it’s absolutely vital for our member companies.

How do you communicate with your team?

I believe in being transparent, communicating frequently, and being clear. All-Hands meetings (monthly meetings with all staff present) are something that I really value a lot.

I would say having all-hands meetings doesn’t make a good organization, but good organizations tend to have all-hands meetings, or something like them. But I’m not doing all the communicating. Part of my leadership style is to try to enable others, give others a platform for growth, and to make them feel comfortable. I want our team to have leadership opportunities. So the all-hands meetings, from a communication point of view, are one way that helps to do that.

Who’s influenced your leadership style? Any great leaders you had in the past or people you’ve read about, or something like this?

There’s three. The first is Charlie Munger. This book is Poor Charlie’s Almanac, as opposed to Poor Richard’s Almanac. I’ve never met Charlie. He’s 92 and the partner of Warren Buffett. There’s so much wisdom, I think, that Charlie has that we can all learn from. It’s a book that you can refer to throughout your entire life. There are certain concepts Charlie has that I like, and that I try to adopt. One is what he calls mental models. In his view, people who are very successful and sharp and so on, have a toolkit of mental models they use for different situations. Their models help how they look at the world, how they look at problems, how they look at relationships with people, and how they view the organizations that they work with and lead, and so on.

The second would be Jonathan Spence, who was my history professor at Yale. He is one of the premier Chinese historians. He wrote a great book, which I refer to from time to time, called To Change China. It does a great job describing foreigners who have come to China over the years – missionaries, diplomats, doctors, engineers, scientists – and tells their stories. I’ve referred to it over my years in China and I always discover parallels. It’s very relevant to our role here at AmCham China because, as foreigners, we have a certain prism that we look through to view and understand and advocate and influence China. But so did all those other individuals over the last 300 or 400 years. The moral of the story is that China will change when it wants to change, but there is a role that foreigners can play in helping China change. China will not change when being pressured, but in a situation and manner where it makes sense in the context of the times. The other point from that book is that the foreigners who came to China to change China had to change themselves to be successful or in some cases just survive.

And then third would be my former boss from IBM, Nigel Knight. He lives in Shanghai and works for EY. I met Nigel back in 2004 when I was at IBM and he was running the business services division. His leadership style, from what I observed, works really well. He has executive presence, but he’s one of those guys that could be meeting with Xi Jinping one day and chatting with a taxi driver the next. He can work the whole spectrum and he relates to people very well.

He’s very astute at building organizations, getting the best out of people and having an eye for talent. He’s always recruiting. And when he spots a good fit and the timing is right, he’ll bring the new person in. He brought me into EY, so I’m a little bit biased. He recognizes Chinese talent astutely, and isn’t afraid to give them responsibilities, to give them challenging leadership roles.

At IBM, he started a rigorous training program for business consultants, not technical people. IBM had this generic training stuff, and he threw much of it out the window. He made a big investment in what he dubbed Global Business Services University. We had about 1,400 consultants from around Greater China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, and one year he brought in everybody for a whole week. Everybody. He got a lot of pushback, globally, that he was spending too much money, and that IBM already had training programs, but he basically just ignored it. People loved him for it. I think it was one of the defining moments that turned our business around.

You talked about how he had an eye for high-potential talent. What do you do when you see high-potential people?

Well, they can be external or internal. If they’re external, it goes a little bit back to Nigel’s paradigm where you always keep an eye out for new talent, and cultivate the relationship. You could be in touch with somebody for years, and maybe the time eventually comes when you hire them. Not that I would ignore our budgets, but for the right talented people, when they come in they’ll deliver value quickly.

For internal talent, it’s usually pretty obvious when people are capable, ambitious, keen to learn and passionate about their work. I’ve worked with hundreds of young Chinese professionals over the years and I’ve seen all types of amazing talented people, including many I’ve personally invested my time in and groomed. My job is to cultivate those people either personally or organizationally through things such as training, mentoring programs and systems that reward performance.  At AmCham I’m very focused on further developing our pool of talent that can do really great things for AmCham, our members and, through the process, themselves.

What do you do in your free time?

Free time? What a concept! I love to run. There’s a great river-front run close to my home near the airport. We’re going to start a running group at AmCham and are talking about signing up a group to join the Beijing Marathon. Obviously, hanging out with my family whenever I can. But my  son is a teenager, so he’s like, “Ugh, Dad.”

The other free-time thing I do is scuba diving. We’re a scuba diving family.

How do you do work-life balance? How do you see your family and still do your job?

It gets back to prioritization – knowing what’s important. And to be honest I’m better than I was on day one here, but I haven’t perfected it. Any email that comes from a member, if they want to meet, I’m going to meet them. Whether they’re a big company or a small company, that’s what I’m going to do. Government meetings, I of course take them. But over time, hopefully I can be a bit better at prioritizing and delegating the many things coming across my desk each day.

The other (way I keep things in balance) is with technology and standardization. I’m all over WeChat. I don’t know if that helps work-life balance to be honest, but it’s a great way to communicate. And then another simple example: a meeting scheduling tool called Doodle. Basically, if you want to have a meeting with 10 people on a certain day, but you don’t know who’s available and who’s not, you give time slots and everybody chooses which slots they’re available. It saves a ton of time.  Another great way is to just say no to certain things. Warren Buffett has a witty saying that the difference between successful people and very successful ones is the very successful ones just say no a lot.