One of the perks of working for a successful high-tech start-up, like Data General Corporation, was hanging around with smart people. They are “bright off the scale” as my friend Dr. Mike Schneider used to say. Oh sure, once in a while a bogey slips through the net, but they are quickly identified, neutralized, and ejected before they cause too much harm. I found myself in such a high performance environment in 1971 when I went to work for Data General, “the darling of Wall Street,” and the fastest growing company of the Seventies.
One of my jobs was entertaining over dinner the senior clients who came in to meet the company founders. The founders weren’t into “entertaining” while I enjoyed the occasional social night out with business heavyweights from around the world. I met some very interesting people. People who liked to tell stories:
I remember Monsieur Rose (pronounced like the wine), a principal of Company Olivier, an important French trading company. They had been doing business in the eastern world, mainly China, since the 17th century. He told me the great secret of doing business with China: “The Chinese value long term relationships, and courtly and conservative business people. The American companies who go over there with high pressure sales pitches, accompanied by ‘Flash and Cash,’ will fail every time.”
Thus should we approach the Mysterious East.
M. Rose knew his company history, loved French wine, and enjoyed telling a good story. I was interested in all three, so we got on splendidly.
He told this story to illustrate the Chinese business mentality: In the 1960’s and 70’s, during Mao’s reign of terror in China, M. Rose would meet in Paris with the Chinese negotiators on important business matters. “The Chinese team never knew from one day to the next who was in charge in Peking (now Beijing), or what the party line would be for today. People were in and out of favor, ideas were adopted and abandoned, and laws were made and changed. It was a turbulent, confusing, and dangerous time.”
“How could the Chinese negotiators in Paris deal with all that chaos back home?” I asked. “It must have made their jobs impossible.”
“Not at all,” smiled M. Rose. “The Chinese are the ultimate business professionals. They are flexible. They are pragmatic. The Chinese team would get a daily cable from Beijing saying this policy is in or out, that leader is good or bad, and this is the correct thinking for today. They whole-heartedly adopted the new political position before their next business meeting. They’d come in wearing business suits one day and quilted jackets the next. They’d wave Mao’s little Red Book of principles – or not. The homeland politics may have changed, but not their mission: They were there to get the best deal possible for China; and that’s exactly what they did”
My favorite Mr. Rose story was about China and their trading mastery. Back in the 18th century, the Chinese realized that there was great Western interest in their delicate tea, their exquisite pottery, and their handsome furnishings. “The big markets in Europe, and the United States were difficult to penetrate for all the usual reasons. The Chinese realized they needed an angle. They found it in an inspired marketing approach: They offered their pottery to Western distributors in a package deal: You buy their pottery. The pottery comes packaged in tea leaves. Both pottery and tea leaves come packed in a crate that is itself a handsome teak box. The merchant would sell the pottery, sell the tea, and sell the chest.
“It was the first time in business history that a merchant could make money on the product, the packing material, and the shipping container. There was no recycling. Nothing was wasted.”
Yes, I like smart people.