For four years, between 2005 and 2009, I collaborated daily with colleagues in Beijing as an employee of Lenovo, the company that pioneered private enterprise in China. After Lenovo bought the IBM Personal Computing Division, my assignment was to build the brand globally and to integrate the two corporate cultures.
This was a challenge straight from Thomas Friedman’s book “The World Is Flat,” and we joked about being able to quote the book’s Lenovo passage, starting on page 244.
I had been a lifelong IBM employee acquired by Lenovo (HKSE: 992) in the purchase, and my initial reaction was anxiety. Upon learning that Lenovo had become a Worldwide Partner of the Olympic Games in 2004 — a year before the company even had a worldwide footprint — my next reaction was excitement. I began managing global communications for Lenovo’s Olympic technology program, which became an important way to integrate cultures and build the brand.
The experience offered more material than one essay can cover. But a key lesson was the development of profound respect for the values and strengths of my Beijing colleagues. These values are remarkable not because they are Chinese, but because they are universal. Perhaps, however, they are now embraced more passionately in developing economies like China than in the United States.
This was a surprise to me. I grew up in Kansas, and believed then and still believe now in the mythological values of the American Midwest — economy, enterprise, efficiency, ingenuity and industry. My heroes were Kansas aviation pioneers: Walter and Olive Ann Beech, Clyde Cessna, Bill Lear, and my father, Warren Page, an electrical engineer at Boeing in Wichita.
After four years of commuting between Beijing and Chapel Hill, where I now live, several experiences make me believe the next Beech, Cessna or Lear — or more accurately the next Jack Dorsey, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Thomas Watson Sr. — the next legendary entrepreneurs may originate in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, or in the Zhongguancun technology district of Beijing. These locations are becoming familiar worldwide, and they will color our view of the Midwest and Silicon Valley and Endicott, New York, the first home of IBM (NYSE: IBM).
Some of my Beijing colleagues were not more than one generation away from poverty, and this experience gave them both the motivation and the ability to carefully extract maximum value and efficiency from minimum available resources. One colleague talked about a sister who lived on about $70 a month in a remote province of China. Not extravagantly, but decently. Thousands of Lenovo retail stores in China used cellphone text messages to report daily sales and inventory. Lenovo’s first building was a guardhouse hut about the size of Dave Packard’s garage.
In airports, security personnel sat down next to me to practice their English. In his books “River Town” and “Oracle Bones,” the American writer Peter Hessler describes students he taught in Fuling who made earnest lists of English words they heard on nightly Voice of America broadcasts. One of my friends defined English as a tool for making money. If you’ve opened a Skype account recently, Chinese callers may have pinged you to practice their English. They’re not asking for money. They’re asking for language practice.
On the marketing floor of a Lenovo building in Beijing, where I worked, busy employees would still fill one-quarter of the cubicles at 9 o’clock at night. In one marketing exercise, when Lenovo’s only space for an Olympic technology showcase was much smaller than its competitors, and was constricted by an ugly ramp to an underground parking garage, my teammates turned lemons into spectacular lemonade. They built a performance stage over the parking ramp and booked street performers who attracted large crowds. These crowds then formed long lines to view exhibits of Lenovo technology.
Experiences like these changed the way I parent our four children. My view is shared not only by Friedman, whose third edition of “The World is Flat” provides advice for parents about keeping their children globally competitive, but by investors who point to an economic future dominated by Asia. In December 2007, simultaneous with one of my commutes to Beijing, the American investor Jim Rogers sold his home in New York and moved to Singapore. In many interviews and in his book, “A Gift to My Children,” he says his most important investment is ensuring that his two daughters know Asia and learn Mandarin.
In the summer of 2008, my 18-year-old son, Walker, visited as we finalized Olympic technology preparations. I armed him with a cheap cellphone, $20 worth of airtime, and fares for transportation, and then turned him loose in the gigantic city of Beijing with a friend he found on Facebook. He navigated the city for 10 days and learned that he isn’t just competing against other students at the University of North Carolina, where he is now a sophomore. He is competing against hustling students from China and India and Korea and Mexico and wherever, who are just as smart as he is, willing to work harder for less money, and often hungrier.
Bob Page founded PageStrategy Communications and manages The Mercury Brief. Photograph of Kansas state motto on the tower at Wichita High School North, “Ad astra per aspera,” or “To the stars through difficulties.” Terra cotta panel by Bruce Moore, 1929.