Cultural Fluency

Law Chen, Shaw Logistics Manager in China

Before Law Chen visited Shaw Industries’ headquarters in Cartersville, Ga., his knowledge of the American South came straight out of Hollywood. “All I knew was ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘Forest Gump’,” he tells me as we gaze at Shaw’s rising carpet tile plant in Nantong. Of course, that’s about as close to reality as believing China is populated by kung fu-wielding pandas. Chen no longer thinks of hoop skirts or Tom Hanks. As Shaw China’s logistics manager, he wears many hats at the Nantong plant, which will serve customers across Asia once it opens next year. To learn the ropes, he recently spent several weeks in Georgia. In addition to meetings and training sessions on the nuts and bolts of operations, Chen saw an innovative, dynamic side of Southern life that was thoroughly modern. “It’s a lot more open than I imagined,” he says.

In today’s global economy, you can’t just speak English to thrive in a multinational company. A keen cultural understanding is critical, which is why Shaw recently brought Chen and the other newly hired Nantong management to Georgia. For Shaw, cultural fluency means more than learning how to work the hardware of global supply chains. The real value of Chen’s trip was getting to know the software – Shaw’s people: “This is a company that treats you like a member of the family,” he says. There were sit-downs with executives and dinners with colleagues. In China, where professional hierarchy is strictly enforced, he would probably never meet the top brass. “In China we respect authority; in the U.S. the value of experience gets respect.”

There’s also another benefit. By bringing Chen to Shaw’s U.S. headquarters, the company was able to better adjust to the ways of China. It’s people like Chen, as well as his fellow Chinese colleagues, who will have a direct role in making Shaw’s China plant come to life.
That distinction was all too clear to Chen while living and working at Shaw’s Georgia headquarters. “We have different experiences and come from different countries,” he says. “But instead of being told to listen, my trip gave us the opportunity to share and learn from each other.”

The data bears out this appeal. According to a recent report in the Chinese media, nearly 70 percent of Chinese prefer working for foreign firms. Multinationals offer ambitious talented Chinese the best of both worlds: a competitive market they fully understand combined with the dynamic best-practices of a global company eager to leverage their skills in the world’s second largest economy.

A major business difference between Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and private multinationals is openness. As firms connected to the government, Chinese SOEs come with a bureaucratic DNA the average multinational can avoid. Plus, multinationals give Chinese more opportunities to meet and mix with foreigners.

Chen has spent his entire career working for multinational corporations in China – electronics, semiconductors, chemicals.

This is the first time, however, that he gets to be part of a start-up, where his years of management and technical prowess will fundamentally leave their mark on Shaw’s future in Asia. And there are a lot of responsibilities. Unlike Shaw’s U.S. business, with its thousands of employees each with their own teams, Chen will be personally overseeing numerous logistical operations at once, from customer service, warehousing and transport to production, procurement and customs compliance. And that’s not all. His function, he says, “is not deep, but wide.”

It’s the kind of challenge that would scare some people off. Not Chen, who is embracing the epic task of creating a supply chain essentially from scratch. Aside from his years of experience and the global support of Shaw, Chen is finding solace in an ancient Confucian proverb: “a heavy load and a long road,” which means to bear heavy responsibilities through a long struggle. Or as he puts it, “if you can’t avoid it, you just enjoy it.”

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