Standing Strong: 3M Overcomes COVID-19 Challenges
By Norris Tangen
With its China headquarters based in Shanghai, 3M was on the front lines of the recent COVID-19 outbreaks in the city. 3M’s Senior Vice President and China President Henry Ding spoke exclusively to the AmCham China Quarterly about his pandemic experiences, the advantages of a localized approach, and preparing for uncertainty.
3M employees celebrate returning to work in Shanghai
Photo courtesy of 3M
3M boasts a longer China history than one might imagine. Following the announcement of China’s reform and opening up in 1978, 3M established its operations shortly after in 1984. In fact, as Senior Vice President of 3M and President of 3M China Henry Ding informs us, the company was the first wholly foreign-invested enterprise established outside of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. In the almost four decades since its landmark registration, the company’s China footprint has expanded enormously, growing from a dozen to 8,000 employees, and establishing a China R&D center, four technical centers, nine manufacturing sites, and 20 branch offices. However, in recent months, after COVID-19 outbreaks led to extended lockdowns in Shanghai, 3M, like many other companies was faced with unprecedented operational challenges. Fortunately, Ding and his team were up to the task, rising to the occasion to combat and successfully emerge from the lockdown period with lessons learned and fresh opportunities on the horizon.
COVID-19 at Home and Abroad
As a veteran employee of almost three decades, Ding has worn many hats at 3M. Most recently, before returning to oversee 3M’s China operations, he was based in the company’s Singapore and US offices. As 2020 began and the COVID-19 pandemic was raising alarm bells, Ding was based in the US. He recalls the experience, “At the beginning of the pandemic in the US, there were pretty strict lockdowns. Restaurants, schools closed, everyone was social distancing and masking up. Our 3M campus was closed and all employees were working from home. The economy was hit very hard that quarter.” By the fall of 2020, Ding had made the move to Singapore, and there he says, after completing the mandatory 14-day quarantine period, he saw the results of the country’s effective contact tracing efforts and vaccination rollout. He remembers, “When I was in Singapore, the Delta variant was spreading all over the world. Singapore is a well-organized country. An app called ‘Trace Together’ was commonly used. It’s very similar to the health code and venue code currently being used in Shanghai. People were still wearing masks and keeping social distance, but the social and economic order were maintained at normal levels. People seemed pretty satisfied with what the government did.” He continues, “The vaccination rate is much higher in Singapore – over 90% – I was able to get my three doses. I believe that’s one of the reasons Singapore was able to open up so quickly.”
Henry Ding is Senior Vice President of 3M and President of 3M China. In this role, Ding is responsible for the leadership and management of 3M’s largest business group – Safety & Industrial Business Group in Greater China Area. He also expands his responsibilities to include the leadership of 3M China, responsible for Corporate Affairs and Enterprise Governance, working to enhance 3M’s overall brand and reputation while driving the Safety and Industrial business growth in Greater China Area. ‘
Ding joined 3M China in 1993. In 2003, he was appointed as Manager of Electronic and Electrical Markets Group. Since then, he assumed increasing leadership responsibilities in leading business teams across diverse markets. He served as Director of Electronics and Energy Business Group, Greater China Area in 2010 and as Director of Industrial and Transportation Business Group, 3M China and 3M Hong Kong in 2014. In 2017, he took the post of International Business Director of Industrial Adhesive and Tapes Division, and relocated to 3M US headquarters. Most recently Henry was moved to Singapore in 2020, served as Vice President of Industrial Adhesive and Tapes Division, 3M Asia. In December 2021, Henry was appointed Senior Vice President of 3M and President of 3M China, and is now based in Shanghai, China.
Ding holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Polymer Chemistry from the Shanghai School of Technology as well as an Executive Business Management Diploma from the China European International Business School (CEIBS).
Photo courtesy of 3M
“At normal times, the company has established well-designed mechanisms to deal with emergencies and practice drills for different scenarios every year.”
Now in 2022, while the pandemic situation has improved, it is still ongoing, continuing to put strain on companies and disrupting global supply chains. The continued impacts of COVID-19 combined with rising inflation are creating an increasingly uncertain global business environment. However, despite these worrying macro-economic trends, Ding is confident in 3M’s ability to cope. He says, “3M is driven by purpose, and powered by four industry-leading businesses, unique global capabilities, and a highly experienced and diverse team. We continue to prioritize actions to better serve our customers, while managing supply chain and inflationary challenges. We are confident we will continue to grow above the macro environment, improve our operational performance and deliver a strong 2022.”
Ding’s confidence was tested with the recent outbreaks and resulting lockdowns in Shanghai, where 3M’s China headquarters, and Ding, are based. Up until the recent outbreaks, the city had been comparatively unaffected, but Ding and his team had to deal with new challenges on the fly as the situation in Shanghai progressed. He says, “In a dynamic environment, there are many uncertainties for us to manage with, for example, how to ensure the production and supply as much as we possibly can amid COVID-19 while safeguarding the safety and health of our employees.” He continues, saying, “At normal times, the company has established well-designed mechanisms to deal with emergencies and practice drills for different scenarios every year. In each sector, the company also has set up a pool of talent who could handle emergencies in a professional way as necessary.” But of course, these are not normal times, and even the most prepared teams are being forced to adapt to business as unordinary. Ding discusses how their team stepped up to deal with the evolving situation, “During the lockdown in Shanghai, the members in the core management team caught up every day for discussion, evaluation, and decisions based on the real-time situation.” Eventually, he says, “With the global support, by mobilizing every possible local resource, and thanks to China team’s hard work, we’ve been able to overcome all of these challenges.”
In practice, Ding says, collaboration both internally and externally with different stakeholders has been crucial to managing challenges throughout the pandemic. He provides an example, “Take our non-stop 9132 medical respirator production, with the support of local governments and the efficient internal management of 3M, it only takes half a day for us to go from the plan of closed-loop production to implementation. Our staff actively volunteered and signed up to be part of the “two points and one line” closed-loop production of the 9132 medical respirators, going between the hotel and the plant.” Ding says the team overcame many challenges in cross-district operations. These successes led to additional problem solving on issues like raw material transportation which enabled continuous production. He reflects, that despite these challenges, “In general, we have managed to continue the production of pandemic prevention supplies under closed-off management, on the premise of strict epidemic prevention and control.”
Four Decades in China
Starting with 3M in 1993, Ding has been witness of and contributor to much of 3M’s growth in China. Since years, Ding says he’s seen a natural progression in the brand’s local strategy. He remarks, “I joined in 1993, from the China perspective we have ‘In China, For China’ as our core strategy. However, over time, 3M has developed even greater involvement in the development of the Chinese economy by leveraging its diversified technologies and multiple solutions. From infrastructure construction to manufacturing, from the concept of ‘Made in China’ to ‘Created by China’, from export-driven growth to boosting domestic demand, 3M rides on the tide of China’s economic development by keeping in-step with, and helping to drive forward the Chinese economy, making it one of the most successfully localized companies in China.”
Ding reiterates how crucial this localized approach has been for 3M, saying, “As a strong believer of ‘local for local’ for long-term development, 3M has also done a lot of local investing.” He continues, “This not only includes investments in local manufacturing, technology, but also by setting up local technical centers near our customers and cultivating local talents.” He explains that while focused on growing the business, the company also takes initiative to give back to local communities, “Since our brand commitment is ‘3M science applied to life’, we have rolled out an array of corporate social responsibility activities to improve lives through contributions of our funds, time, and efforts.” Those activities have included education for local communities, environmental protection, and volunteering. An area of particular focus is STEM education. Ding says “We are a longtime supporter of STEM education in China, which includes inviting students into our R&D center for hands-on experiments and training.” Beyond that, he says, “For 10 consecutive years, 3M has led a School Zone Safety Program across the country. We partner with traffic police officers, and help upgrade neighborhoods around schools with 3M’s leading traffic safety solutions.”
Thinking back on his return to China after many years working abroad, Ding says that he is appreciative of the advances and progress of the market. He explains, “Operational efficiency and productivity have been tremendously improved in almost all areas, which is significantly offsetting the wage cost increase.” That productivity is aided by a marked increase in experience in the talent market, especially he notes, in the areas of manufacturing, supply chain, and sales and marketing. China’s e-commerce innovations have also created a large impact, Ding says, “Both e-commerce and digitalization are taking a much larger portion of our daily life, which includes both living style and working behavior.” Today, he says, China has assumed a spot as a global leader, “For commercialization innovation, China probably takes a leading position in the world, especially when tied in with digital.”
Looking forward, Ding says he is excited to see many growth opportunities across 3M’s leading businesses, “including industrial, electronics, automotive, healthcare, air quality and safety.” He adds that thanks to 3M’s reputation and long-term investment in China, people across the country trust 3M to keep them safe at both their homes and workplaces, a responsibility he says the organization takes very seriously. And he says, 3M is committed to maintaining and increasing that investment, “We also continue to invest in China.” He says, “In just the last year, we have expanded production capacity of structural adhesives at our factory in Jinshan, and set up a semiconductor grinding disc production line at our Suzhou plant. These investments help us better serve customers with full localization from R&D, to production and commercialization.”
Apart from deepening its localized approach, Ding says that China’s investments in modern manufacturing and infrastructure development will also bring new opportunities for 3M. “As a longtime leader in sustainability, we are also excited about opportunities from China’s commitment to green development, including carbon management, where 3M technologies can play a really important part to solve those technical problems. While electric vehicles come up more and more and data centers need to be more efficient, 3M is there with our technologies to help address these challenges. As we have for decades, we will continue to help support the evolution of China’s economy into the future.”
Embrace Change, Prepare for Uncertainty
While Ding is proud of the problem solving and adaptability demonstrated by his team throughout the Shanghai lockdown, that does not diminish the impact and the high degree of uncertainty it caused. He advises other leaders going through similarly uncertain times, “It’s important to embrace changes and be ready to accept challenges with a positive mindset.” Ultimately, he says, in these increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous times, preparation is the first line of defense, “It is very important that in such an environment of uncertainty, what matters most is how to prepare for uncertainties, and provide certainty as much as possible.”