By Lei Na
When his university’s Expedition Association organised a cycling tour to Tibet over the summer break in 2006, Liao Bin signed up. The 2,300-kilometre journey took him and his 15 fellow cyclers a month to complete. Along the way some suffered from altitude sickness, others were injured falling from their bicycle, and a few were even hit by cars. Despite the challenges the group reached their destination, and the experience made Liao realise how much he enjoys the challenge of exploring the unknown.
Hoping to work abroad after completing his degree in 2007, Liao joined the Chinese multinational Huawei, a leading global information and communications technology solutions provider. Three years in, he had the opportunity to work abroad. Intrigued by the idea of working in a non-English-speaking country that was not very familiar to most Chinese, he chose Brazil.
He was soon to be challenged by more than the language and cultural differences. Brazil was one of the company’s worst performing regions. It had not made a profit in over 13 years. A leader often summarised Huawei’s situation there with five “basicallys” – basically no plan, purchasing basically depending on face-to-face communication, delivery basically done by walking, IT basically relied on bare hands, and basically there were no friends who could help with purchasing.
Liao was put on a big project almost immediately after arriving. He had to develop and implement a plan for optimising the process for dealing with local materials in Brazil. This included everything from sales to suppliers and would involve an IT platform upgrade, sourcing, planning, product configuration, the quotation process, cost management and inventory liquidation. Usually one to embrace a challenge, this one seemed quite daunting to Liao. Still, he was determined to fulfil his assignment. With help from the regional president, he met with leaders from many secondary departments and set up a project team numbering more than 50 people. As he moved forward, he realised that since half the team was located in China and the rest were in various cities around Brazil, communication costs were too high. He streamlined their communications by breaking the group into sub-teams and dividing the work between them. Though there would end up being more than 100 people involved in the project, he only needed to speak with the leaders of the seven sub-teams.
However this was only one of the many problems he needed to solve. The inefficiency was beyond imagination. At that time Huawei Brazil had no IT platform for purchasing, all order information from clients was submitted through excel forms, even for a purchase worth more than US$100 million. Liao gathered all the excel forms – more than 2,000 of them – and spent more than two hours each day going through each one and sorting the data into a table that would be used to create a localised IT platform. This also helped him better understand customer demand, and he worked with the sales team to develop a strategy for combining products to help boost sales.
The result of his efforts was RMB500 million in savings for the company and Liao received the company’s global President’s Prize and the Brazil office’s Golden Prize in 2013. When he joined Huawei Brazil in 2010, the company then had sales volume of about US$1 billion. Two years later the number was as high as US$1.4 billion. But more importantly, with Liao focused on supply chain management, purchases dropped to US$50 million in 2012 (from US$130 million in 2010) and inventories dropped from RMB300 million to RMB30 million.
Despite the pressures of his job, Liao found time to enjoy life in Brazil outside of the office. He says Brazilians are very hospitable people. “My colleague’s mother cannot speak Chinese or English, but would invite us to her place for meals. When we arrived she warmly embraced each of us,” he explains. “If you can speak Portuguese, you can enjoy long conversations with elderly people while on the road. It’s common to see young guys spend the afternoon chatting with each other outside over a beer.”
He also learned a lot from his time at Huawei. “There are hundreds of thousands of links within a project. At the front end there is meeting the clients, then there is the completion of deliverables and collecting payment. Each part is linked,” he says. “My work is one of the links, and if my link is broken, then all the efforts made in the previous links are affected, and the resources prepared for later links could be delayed, or even wasted. Everyone says that Huawei employees are under great pressure, and I think the real reason is that, driven by our sense of responsibility, we have to solve problems for clients and always do our best for them.”
Having successfully completed the big optimisation project, Liao began to think about returning to school. He quit his job and returned to China, enrolling in CEIBS MBA Class of 2018, where he is making a career transition to entrepreneurship. In addition to studying, he is also partner in a start-up that focuses on overseas study. He is optimistic about the education industry. Though starting a business has certainly been challenging, as always, Liao is determined to forge ahead. He is also enjoying the switch to being a service provider after so many years working on the purchasing side at Huawei. “Spending more time contacting customers means getting more cold shoulders and more frustration, but it will also give me more experience and make me a better person,” he says.