Though unorthodox, the strategy Lauren Zhao adopted in finding a first job after graduation could hardly have turned out better.
Recalling a stroll around Tianjin’s city centre in the early 1990s, something caught her eye, and she decided that should determine her choice of future employer.
“I saw the building,” says the managing director in Hong Kong for global logistics integrator UPS, describing the mid-rise development which stood out back then for its plate glass and sleek, modern look. “I thought I would like to work for a company with offices there. The list included a number of foreign firms looking to break into the China market. They were hiring graduates who had some knowledge of English and were keen to learn, so it seemed like a good place to start.”
Zhao duly applied to one of the prime tenants, UPS, secured an interview and, the very next day, received an offer to start work at any time.
What she brought was a four-year degree in scientific English from Tianjin University of Technology and, in keeping with the mood of the time, a strong desire to play some part in China’s opening up to international trade. But despite both parents working for a state-owned enterprise involved in domestic transportation, her understanding of the actual business was rudimentary at best.
“As it happened, I really had no idea about the industry, but I did know it was a global company and that I’d be able to use my language skills,” she says. “I started in 1993 in ocean customer service, handling frontline operations, taking bookings, typing up documents, and using the fax machine. I learned quickly and was lucky: being with a fast growing company in the China market meant there was a new assignment every two to three years.”
The rapid expansion was spurred in part by a corporate joint venture and a “Class A” licence, which opened the door to handling airfreight, forwarding and customs brokerage in the mainland. Zhao was asked to set up the brokerage division and, just six years after joining, was appointed manager of the Tianjin branch and was clearly destined for greater things.
The chance then came to relocate to Shanghai and, not long after, to Suzhou to set up a brand-new office in a city where light industry and high-tech manufacturing were taking off.
“We started with nothing – just me, a driver and a finance person,” she says. “Over the next five years, up to 2006, we expanded to 150 people, two offices and three warehouses. We had a broad portfolio including express services, air and ocean freight, contract logistics and local delivery, as well as a lot of special projects, which probably explains why I was offered the opportunity in Beijing.”
That just happened to be a position running the Beijing logistics centre for the 2008 Summer Olympics. The high-profile role resulted from UPS’s sponsorship agreement with the local organising committee and entailed not just the timely co-ordination of everything moving in and out for the Games, but also organisational support for the torch relay, which visited 22 international cities and 31 provinces across China.
All told, it was an immensely complex undertaking, with unmoveable deadlines and all kinds of potential for minor disasters if, for example, competitors’ rowing boats were delayed in transit, uniforms arrived late, or the cauldron wasn’t in place.
“Of course, it was the first time, so no one in China knew how to handle the Olympics; that made the project difficult, eye-catching and very exciting,” Zhao says. “At its peak, the logistics centre covered about 1 million square feet – that’s about the size of 33 football fields – and the ultimate objective for our team was zero mistakes or accidents at any time.”
The full assignment lasted three years and, as confirmation of a mission successfully completed, Zhao was invited to work on the company’s “bid book” to continue as sponsor for the 2012 Games. Subsequently, she also spent a month in London as part of the knowledge transfer process, passing on her accumulated expertise to the London organising team.
That done, she could focus once again on ever expanding corporate roles in Beijing, then Shanghai and, since earlier this year, in Hong Kong. Typically, though, she has never actively sought these moves and often only accepted them with a degree of hesitation.
“In that respect, I lacked self-confidence,” Zhao says. “When opportunities came along, I often asked myself if I was capable of doing the job. But if senior management gave me a push and a bit of encouragement, I found I was able to take on new challenges and do well. I think that’s because I’m also determined, always work hard, and want to deliver results in whatever I take up.”
At present, besides achieving the business plan and annual growth targets, a specific goal is to be creative in applying new technologies in the local market. Another is to work more closely with customers to understand their changing expectations and find new efficiencies at every level.
“After the first few months, I’m pretty confident that I can work well with the team here,” Zhao says. “I have a lot of ideas and, since Hong Kong is a crucial location within the company’s global network, there will be scope for innovation, new strategies and expanding services.”
To stay sharp and maintain energy levels, she makes exercise a regular part of her routine and sets herself small targets along the way.
“If time is limited, I’ll work out in the gym. Otherwise, I do everything from golf and swimming to tai chi and yoga. These activities shift the focus away from work and show me that persistence can lead to improvement.”
(Photo: Lau Wai)
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Delivering the goods.