Distribution of Power
Switching on a light or firing up the PC is so much an everyday activity that most of us never give it a second thought. But Jonathan Chiu sees the world of complexity behind the trouble-free distribution of power to all kinds of users and enterprises, and the technology that makes it happen.
“Basically, we do everything that takes place in between the utility company which generates electricity and the businesses which make end-user appliances and devices,” says the president of Schneider Electric (Hong Kong). “We believe that access to energy is a basic human right, and technology helps people have that access everywhere and at every moment.”
As part of a major global concern, the company’s product portfolio covers everything from grid solutions and power conversion to switchgear systems for electrical infrastructure, lighting controls, energy management, industrial automation, and cooling systems for data centres.
The deployment of different solutions, devices and equipment helps customers to upgrade efficiency, optimise operations and save costs. And the increasing use of software with embedded AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning is now adding a new dimension by collecting and analysing data to improve predictive reliability and maintenance checks.
“These are the key value propositions we deliver,” says Chiu, who oversees a 350-strong team. “The majority of our products and solutions are not that visible to consumers, since they would typically be found in power grid infrastructure, electrical plant rooms, or the monitoring systems of a control centre. But this technology helps to enhance process automation, sustainability and the value of buildings, and is already playing a big part in the development of ‘smart city’ concepts.”
Indeed, Chiu notes, the group works with 90 per cent of the Fortune 500 companies and, consequently, sells to a very broad customer base including railways, airports, hotels, hospitals, schools, factories, and both residential and commercial buildings.
And to do this successfully, it is essential to keep innovating by investing up to 5 per cent of annual revenue in R&D projects. Some of this, for example, is now directed towards the design and manufacture of electric vehicle chargers, payment-system interfaces, and sensors to analyse air quality, control temperatures, adjust lighting and monitor occupancy. With this go the latest cloud-based applications and analytics features which capture and interpret data, thereby making it possible to optimise operations and anticipate problems.
“These are all meaningful applications,” Chiu says. “We provide intelligence and insights, designing and building solutions for anything from micro-grids in remote areas to sensors to check the at-home movements of elderly people who may need assistance.”
Growing up in Hung Hom, Chiu was taught the importance of strong values and honest application. His father worked long hours as a taxi driver and his mother did similar in the textile sector, with both believing there is no shortcut to success: it must be earned.
“They also reminded me that, when first stepping into society, you shouldn’t think too much about the benefits you should be getting or mind doing extra. Instead, see any task as part of the learning process and don’t mind doing more than others in a team.”
This general outlook was further shaped by the local environment. In particular, when living in public housing, Chiu saw how neighbours were always ready to lend a hand, everyone looked out for each other, and no one locked their doors.
“Early on, I learned that friendship and close connections are important, and that by helping others, you help yourself.”
Attending Chan Sui Ki (La Salle) College in Ho Man Tin, he showed an aptitude for science, which later made industrial engineering a natural choice at the University of Hong Kong. However, spare-time drawing and painting provided an outlet for his creative side and a useful counterpoint.
“I found it helped me reflect and concentrate; it was time for myself and a chance to use my imagination,” he says. “In a drawing, you can have your own feelings and express them in how you perceive an object.”
As things turned out, the subsequent decision to join Schneider after graduating in 1996 also showed a mix of careful thought and individualism. At a time when most of his classmates were going into the manufacturing sector and taking up roles in mainland China, Chiu started out as a sales engineer in a business unit focusing on IT and data products.
“I preferred to stay in Hong Kong and to have the chance to interact with customers,” he says. “I enjoyed the sales part, meeting different types of people, learning from them and about the external market.”
Ability and results ensured he rose steadily through the ranks, becoming country general manager for Hong Kong in 2005. However, aware that staying too long with the same business unit might limit the chances of further promotion, he later switched divisions to work with different teams and customers and signed up for the prestigious Kellogg-HKUST executive MBA programme. The specific aim was to gain a broader outlook and brand-new perspectives by studying alongside people from completely different industries.
“Everything was new to me and outside my comfort zone, but being in that environment was an excellent learning experience and gave me ideas to apply at work,” he says. “For instance, in our industry, we are now seeing a lot of digital disruption caused by new technology. All this is changing the way we do business, so we need to change our value proposition, the way we interact with customers, and be ready to accelerate the pace of transformation.”
Away from work, family responsibilities come first, but Chiu also manages to combine that with a love of travel — this year to Greece — to satisfy a curiosity about the culture and history of other countries.
“At some point, I’d also like to be a teacher, doing something meaningful to help young people with my knowledge of maths, science and history,” he says.