In-Depth Interview: Sabine Hoppe, Siemens

As the export controls world gets increasingly complex, Hoppe says building the right relationships helps her stay informed

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When a country's economy falters, it often tightens controls on exports and import. And thus, as China's economy slows, Sabine Hoppe's job is getting tougher. Hoppe is the Senior Vice President and Head of Export Control and Customs at Siemens China, leading industrial manufacturing solutions company.

For 20 years, Hoppe has focused on international trade operations and compliance, and has been with Siemens since 2001. She stands as a top leader on the company not just because of this expertise; she also takes leadership and team-building very seriously.

Hoppe arrived in Beijing in 2014 after about a year of traveling between the US and China to provide project-based support to the export control and customs team she now leads. During that initial interaction, she said it was clear the team was in need of more leadership to help them navigate the increasingly difficult export controls, and asked to take the reigns.

What are the biggest challenges for export compliance at the moment?

Besides the tough economic development in China, the key challenges in my area of responsibility are the major reforms that China General Administration of Customs (GAC) is implementing as well as the complexity of local customs port administration. GAC is introducing a lot of new regulations to support the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which will bring great opportunities and benefits to the industries. However, the actual implementation at the local customs ports needs to speed up and requires much more communication and focus. I believe it is our duty and responsibility as large importing/exporting companies to actively work with GAC, local ports and associations to bridge the gap between high-level regulations and the actual execution.

The new reforms represent a major change from the way of doing import / export business in the past. Therefore, it will require more time and the seamless cooperation with all partners in the supply chain to fully implement these changes.

How do you stay up-to-date about these reforms?

We use different methods. Of course, we check all the public notifications as much as we can. We work closely with the Big Four (accounting firms Deloitte, Ernst&Young, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers) getting involved in their training seminars and their workshops. Of course we’re also using AmCham China and the EU Chamber as platforms for getting involved in the new developments. It's a very critical point for us and it is our major focus to make sure nothing goes by us. We need to ensure that we at least evaluate the potential impact of these new initiatives and developments for Siemens.

Does this also involve calling up the right people in the Chinese government?

Sure, that’s the other aspect we have been driving much stronger for almost a year now. We are getting much more directly involved with the customs officers based on the level, based on the topics, so that we are known as a partner for discussions and experience sharing. We are much, much more involved now – and that really helps.

In general would you say export control is getting easier or harder?

China is on its way to get involved in more of the trade agreements and becoming part of more international regimes. This will have a considerable impact.

How big is the team that you are working with and managing?

Altogether across China, we have a team of 80 people. We have about 60 importing/exporting operating companies here in China, so we have people that are doing compliance work for export control and customs as well as the operational tasks in all these locations, that's about 70 people. And then we have a core team completely focused on compliance and governance which is about 10 people.

We have a broad range of skills and tasks. Some of our employees are clearly just dedicated to one job role. In addition, we have a lot of employees that are wearing different hats and having different job roles at the same time. Here my main challenge as a manager is to ensure they have the appropriate focus, especially with all these changes and requirements.

Do you have any HR challenges?

We’re always looking for talents, especially in the customs area. Finding the right people for our open positions can prove quite time-consuming. Right now, for example, we are looking for people who are very skilled in classifications.

How do you keep everybody on the same page?

My entire team meets at least once a year for a two-day workshop, just to get everybody together and share experiences and for training. Otherwise, face-to-face communication is challenging based on all the locations we have. In addition, we use online meetings and WebEx. I meet once a month with my core team and I have a personal conversation with my direct reports at least every two weeks. We also use social media like WeChat groups to communicate more efficiently.

And how is the communications relationship with headquarters? Is that difficult to manage as well?

No, they are very supportive. China is one of the biggest markets besides the US and Germany. So of course it has a lot of attention.

We have a great collaboration model to ensure that we achieve the same goal globally even if we have to adjust certain methods or approaches according to cultural or regional requirements.

Any books that have influenced you?

A lot of them. I like to read; it’s one of my passions. I like to read about everything – like motivation, leadership skills, influencing, what have you – but I think one of the most influential coaches out there for me is Robin Sharma.

His books The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari and The Leader Who Had No Title certainly changed my way of thinking and my approach to work. Both books emphasize that you will do much better in life when you truly love what you’re doing. No matter what kind of position you hold, if you do your job with the utmost greatness and compassion, you will find your destiny. 

How do you identify and foster high potentials in your team?

At Siemens we really have a comprehensive program for first of all recognizing talent and then making sure they grow into new roles. It’s a very good program that addresses not just the technical skills needed to do the job but even more focused on soft skills: leadership, delegation and managing teams.

For me it's important that employees get the chance to actively create their career path. One way of promoting growth for employees is to let them take ownership of projects and let them get exposure to upper management or other functions. We have a lot of projects on this team. If employees take ownership of a project, they can build their reputation within the company. It helps them build their network so that they can grow.

What do you do in your free time?

I like to explore China and learn about Chinese culture. A few places that really impressed me the most were Xi’an, Zhangjiajie and Tibet.

What do you hope to accomplish while you’re in China?

Our goal when I started was to make sure that our compliance program was absolutely watertight, not only including the requirements we have from global headquarters, but also ensuring we are following all relevant Chinese regulations in order to maintain effective and efficient trade business. Then, looking into our operations for import-exports, asking how do we build a more effective and efficient way of processing import and export shipments? So we implemented an IT solution to help us with the operations. There were a lot of activities in stabilizing the team and optimizing the roles, responsibilities and job tasks.

And do you feel like you’ve made good headway on those goals?

Yeah, we’re not perfect yet, but we are much better off than when we started, that’s for sure. I’m very proud of what the team here has accomplished and the hard work they are continuously contributing to our overall company goals.