Managing in China: Part One

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: China

Managing in China: Part One
The different language, culture and regulatory set-up may make running an ingredients company in China a daunting proposition for Western executives. But Yossi Gohary, general manager of Solbar Ningbo, says it’s all about cultural compromise.

Gohary has notched up eight years experience in China. Five of these have been with Solbar Ningbo (wholly-owned by Israel’s Solbar Industries), which supplies soy protein to the Chinese noodle and meat industry and international firms and has annual growth of 40 per cent.

This month he has been named as the only non-Chinese out of 100 managers honoured as Most Outstanding Manager by the Chinese authorities. So what is the secret of his success?

“In our company it’s a combination of the Western and Chinese way,” ​Gohary told FoodNavigator.com. “In my philosophy, you can’t take Chinese people and make them American, German or Israeli.”

He takes advantage of elements of Chinese culture, such as high self discipline, high motivation and hard work. But at the same time, he encourages traits that are uncommon in China but which are intrinsic to the Western way of working.

For example, people do not tend to take risks in order to move the business forward, as making a mistake is frowned upon in Chinese society.

“If you make a mistake in your studies, marks are deducted. It is important to tell them that it is ok to make mistakes.”​ At the beginning this was a very big issue, but now, after five years, Gohary’s managers know his way of working. “Nobody will be punished!”

He has encouraged staff to make decisions without always requiring his involvement and approval and to think creatively – by coming to meetings not just with the problems but with suggested solutions, for example.

Young managers

After returning to China in late 2004 to establish Solbar Ningbo, Gohary spent the first year obtaining the certificates required by Chinese law, setting up procedures and assembling his team of around 70 staff. (Today there are 74 staff, and expansion means the headcount will rise to 90 by the end of the year).

His new recruits came from all over China, and the completely different cultures between north and south, east and west – as well as different levels of education – meant establishing a team that could work well together was a challenge.

Moreover most Chinese managers are aged between 30 and 36 years old, as the Cultural Revolution meant people over the age of 40 did not have educational opportunities. While they are young, smart and qualified, they are occupying positions that, in the US, would be held by people with 25 years’ experience.

Solbar Ningbo has six top level managers, and Gohary has had to be deeply involved for the first two years, in order to build up their experience and confidence. Fortunately he has a BSC degree in Chemistry from Ben Gurion University and an MBA in economy and business administration, which meant he was able to help cover the financial and technical bases.

Now, he says: “It is important to put very clear targets to the Chinese management. Once they know the targets they will make it, or at least do their best to make it.”

What is more, in China there is a strong emphasis on achieving one’s potential. In contrast to other countries, “potential is more important than salary”.

This means that, in addition to paying a fair salary, staff at Solbar Ningbo receive training, and employee evaluations are conducted every six months.

Sharing the glory

Gohary’s receipt of the award came as a surprise to him. The selection committee was made up of members of the Ministry of Economic Development and Chinese economic news bureau. Criteria for the honours scheme, which is only run every five years, included company performance and contribution to the local economy and community.

But despite being pleased at recognition of five years’ hard work, he is keen to share the credit where it is due.

“Maybe I am a good coach, but no coach in the world can win a basketball game without first league players. Today we have young, capable management who know how to cope. I don’t have time to do their job.

“I have told them how to manage, and today they are the best players.”

Part two of FoodNavigator’s interview with Yossi Gohary will be published next week, and will cover working with Chinese authorities and major food firms, and Chinese market potential.

Related topics: Markets, Emerging Markets