Sun, Sep 03, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Tapping into China's market

Laurie Underwood's entertaining and informative how-to guide distills the wisdom of top business leaders in China

By Max Hirsch  /  STAFF REPORTER

Laurie Underwood looks at the people who are shaping business in China.

PHOTO COURTESY OF JOHN WILEY & SONS

In 2002, while an MBA student at the China Europe International School in Shanghai, Laurie Underwood received what she says was an unfair grade (B+) from her “feisty” professor, Juan Fernandez.

“Part of the MBA experience is learning to stick up for yourself and be assertive,” Underwood said, adding that she went to see Fernandez about the grade, expecting a verbal sparring match with her “Spanish-tempered” mentor.

“[Fernandez] was all smiles and had my resume out, which I thought was odd. We ended up talking about my grade — which he changed to an A — for one minute, and about his book idea for 45 minutes,” Underwood said.

Fernandez's book concept was to compile wisdom and advice from some of the top foreign businesspeople in China about how to run a successful business there. But he needed a partner with the China-specific business savvy and writing ability to make that idea a reality.

That's where Underwood came in.

“I think [Fernandez] liked that I was a business journalist, and he wanted to write a carefully researched but easy-to-read book,” Underwood told the Taipei Times.

But Underwood was more than just a business journalist; she was an old Taiwan hand with 12 years' experience covering business beats in Taipei. After her MBA, she went on to become a top official in the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. Her professional experiences as an American in Chinese-speaking environments made her the perfect candidate for Fernandez's project.

Four years later, their collaboration culminated in China CEO: Voices of Experience from 20 International Business Leaders, a well-researched page-turner about the Dos and Don'ts of running a business in the Middle Kingdom.

Underwood acknowledged that the book is part of an emerging “how-to” genre for foreigners seeking to make a buck in China. However, she insisted that China CEO is unique among the many new books about how to tap China's market, in that it is more academic and covers a wider spectrum of industries.

“We tried to go to a wide range of people — all CEOs of major multinational companies spanning many different sectors,” Underwood said.

“We wanted to do an academic study incorporating many views and opinions about what it takes to do business in China, rather than writing from one person's perspective,” she added.

The result is an entertaining but informative synthesis of interviews with foreign captains of industry in China. What does it take to recruit, manage, and retain talented Chinese employees? Let the CEOs of General Electric China, Coca Cola China, or Sony China tell you in their own words. Underwood and Fernandez, in true journalistic fashion, are more conduits of others' wisdom than purveyors of advice themselves about how to make it in China.

At first glance, China CEO may seem geared toward a Western audience, but Underwood insists that the book is relevant to Taiwanese businesspeople, too. That's why she was back in Taipei to promote China CEO last week.

“David Chang [CEO of Philips China], a Taiwanese CEO who we interviewed, gives a lot of advice in the book that's good for anybody who is familiar with the Taiwanese business environment but wants to break into China,” Underwood said, adding that a version with traditional Chinese characters will hit Taiwanese bookstores this month.

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