The Path to Success-Story of GEMBA2001 Alumni

Lie MA
President, Greenment Environment
CEIBS Global EMBA 2001

In 2012, Lie MA, then Vice President of CH2M HILL and general manager of the company's China operations, found himself at a crossroads in his career.

Despite its No. 1 ranking by the Engineering News Record (ENR) for seven consecutive years, CH2M HILL's operations in Northeast Asia were not going well. Its business in China was disappointing, especially in the field of government infrastructure consultancy, against a backdrop of lackluster performance across the board for foreign engineering consultancies in the country.

"The group decided that the Chinese market was not yet ready for large foreign engineering and environmental consultancies. And I was left with two options: either help the group close its China operations and move somewhere else; or take over the business and run it independently," Ma said.

"I opted for the latter," he said. So following a spin-off of the China operations by CH2M HILL in 2012, Ma transitioned from being an executive at a top 500 American business to being the head of a Chinese business - Greenment Environment Technology. The company is now the largest independent environmental consultancy in China.

Addressing challenges following a dimming of the CH2M glow

Previously, Ma and his team had basked in the light provided by CH2M HILL, as its subsidiary in China. After their transformation into a Chinese business the glow dimmed, and the first challenge they needed to address, like other startups, was increasing the visibility of Greenment in the industry from scratch.

In addition, Greenment had to face competition on two fronts: multinational advisory organizations operating in China and state-owned consultancies traditionally backed by the Chinese government.

Ma and his team struck it lucky in 2012, when China's central and local governments started attaching increasing importance to environmental protection, creating an enabling macro environment for Greenment. Relative to other industries that were experiencing a slowdown, the environmental sector entered a phase of rapid development. Ma proudly recalled that, "Since 2012, Greenment has been growing at annual rate of about 50%, and has become the largest independent environmental consultancy in China."

Identifying the right market segment

Apart from riding the tailwinds of a megatrend, how has Greenment managed to achieve 50% annual growth while besieged by multiple market challenges? Ma's answer was by identifying the right market segment and making inroads into it.

As China further integrated into the world economy in the early 2010s, Chinese businesses started to invest overseas in droves. These Chinese investors preferred to work with a Chinese environmental consultancy on the belief that they had a more intimate understanding of Chinese clients' needs and the Chinese way of doing business.

Ma noted that this was the same as foreign multinationals' preference for foreign consultancies to local ones. "As a Chinese company, we act as a bridge facilitating cross-border investments by Chinese businesses, including state-owned enterprises. One of our advantages over the competition, our beginnings as a spin-off subsidiary of a multinational company, has allowed us to provide truly international services. So our business has grown substantially. "

The fact that foreign consultancies were facing increasing challenges in fully understanding and aligning their services with China's evolving environmental protection policies, and therefore finding themselves hard-pressed to meet clients' needs, also helped to augment the advantages of Greenment as an indigenous business. "We also use English, and are therefore fully aware of the needs of large foreign businesses. So in addition to maintaining stable partnerships with Chinese clients, we have also won over a large number of foreign clients in China."   

Ma especially shared Greenment's experience in identifying a viable market segment. During his time at CH2M HILL, he and his team had served clients from many sectors of the environmental industry. Immediately after founding Greenment, they identified its business focus through an in-depth analysis of China's environmental protection market.  

"At the time, water treatment, waste disposal and air pollution reduction were red oceans, while soil rehabilitation was a less charted territory. So on day one, we made it our mission to leverage our unrivaled expertise to become a leader in soil rehabilitation."

The strategic choice has been proven correct. According to the Report on the National General Survey of Soil Contamination published in 2014, poor soil health was a critical issue across China, with severe soil contamination in some regions, especially in areas previously occupied by industrial and mining operations, and farmland affected as well. Overall, 16.1% of the investigated samples exceeded the maximum contamination level, while 19.4% of the farmland samples reported excessive contaminant levels. With the release of these figures, soil rehabilitation started to enter the Chinese government's agenda and attract wide public interest. China stepped up legislation on soil protection. On May 28, 2016, the State Council introduced the Action Plan for Soil Pollution Control, and the Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Law, the first of its kind in China, was enacted in August 2018, and came into force on January 1, 2019.       

"These legislative efforts gave rise to a massive soil rehabilitation market. Years of preparations gave us a head start at the inception of this market," Ma said. 

Building on a global vision cultivated at CH2M HILL and expertise developed working as China's first soil rehabilitation experts, coupled with an intimate knowledge of China's soil contamination situation, Ma and his team developed a number of state-of-the-art soil rehabilitation techniques in just a couple of years. Their multi-phase extraction technique, for instance, was included in the Catalogue of Techniques for the Remediation of Contaminated Soils compiled by the Ministry of Environmental Protection. They produced the first washing system for removing heavy metals from contaminated soils and the first in-situ thermal conduction heating system for soil rehabilitation in eastern China. And they received public funding for developing an engineering and technological system for preventing and alleviating soil contamination for petrochemical enterprises.   

Riding the tailwinds of a megatrend

As Greenment worked to dominate the soil remediation segment, the business climate for environmental protection in China was changing for the better. The most obvious change in the environmental consultancy market was a shift of focus towards technological solutions amid mounting environmental pressure and tougher government regulation, which was a positive for a business that had been focused on developing technological prowess since its inception.

Fresh opportunities were also emerging. "Two years ago, we expanded our environmental consultancy services into our clients' supply chains, which have become a big demand in the market," Ma said.
Ma noted that while the world's top brands, such as Apple, Microsoft and Coca Cola, were implementing green supply chain management as part of efforts to fulfill their corporate social responsibility and as a way to show their commitment to green development, Chinese brands were doing it solely in order to survive increasingly tighter environmental regulations and operate as a going concern.  

In response to an ongoing government crackdown on environmental breaches, Greenment developed a dynamic environmental risk assessment system (DERA) combining environmental big data, information technology and their own environmental expertise, in an effort to help clients promptly detect environmental pressures on their hundreds or thousands of suppliers across the country, and evaluate the risks of potential disruptions to any link of the supply chain due to environmental problems. The system collects data on businesses' environmental performance, environmental violation records, and information on external risks, such as new policies, public opinion, and resistance from stakeholders and environmentally concerned audiences. Based on these data, Greenment's experts customize a full range of risk monitoring services for clients, helping them quickly identify suppliers that might be subject to close-down due to environmental breaches or changes in environmental policies, and seek alternative supply solutions. "There is a vast market for environmental services out there. The application of big data to environmental management represents a huge business opportunity in the future," Ma said. As well as expanding the DERA system, Ma also branched out into digital environmental services.

Currently, the construction of infrastructure remains the major means of waste treatment, namely massive landfills, waste incineration plants, and sewage treatment plants. Ma said that while environmental consultancy is still in its infancy and not necessarily the mainstream of environmental services in China, he nonetheless has a positive view of Greenment's growth prospects. He believes that as an increasing number of businesses start to pay attention to their environmental footprint, they will need more professional advisory agencies to help them improve compliance.

Staying true to an original ambition

Ma's insights about the industry derive from years of experience. Shortly after he graduated from the Department of Environmental Engineering at Tongji University in 1993, Ma joined a leading American environmental consultancy. It was a golden era for foreign investors in China, and Ma's career took off. In 2001, when China was admitted to the WTO, he was promoted to department manager. That same year, at the age of 31, he decided to study the Global EMBA at CEIBS.

His return to school was driven by a desire to better manage the next stage of his career development. Ma wanted to become a professional manager, not just an industry expert. As his employer regularly gave lectures on the environment and sustainable development at CEIBS, he believed the school was the best choice for him.

"CEIBS courses covered a wide range of topics, including human resources management, finance, business organization, marketing, and development of strategies. They provided me with a solid foundation in business management, and served me very well at Greenment years later."

However, after completing the CEIBS Global EMBA programme, Ma did not immediately get a proper management position in the company. So he left to join CH2M HILL in 2006, and the rest is history.   

In the 15 years since Ma graduated from CEIBS, the world economy has become more complex and dynamic. China's economy has resumed a new normal after a period of miraculous growth. Nonetheless, Ma has been fully committed to the career that he embarked on after graduation, and his persistence has paid off. 

When asked whether he had any recipes for success to share with a new generation of Global EMBA students, Ma said frankly that his success was born of a specific social context, and could hardly be replicated. But he believed that the business challenges and uncertainties that he and his team had faced remained the same for the new generation of CEIBS Global EMBA students. He suggested expecting the best, preparing for the worst and taking sure-footed steps forward.   

"In China's rapidly changing business environment there is no fail-safe experience to draw on. But learners will benefit a lot from the knowledge acquired at CEIBS," said Ma.

Ma's ambition for the future is to build Greenment into a world-leading Chinese consultancy. "As China grows stronger in an increasingly globalized world, we will see greater chances of success." Greenment is going to open its first European office in 2019.