While we knew things were never going to be easy in China, even the more experienced members of our team were surprised with how many roadblocks and surprises we were dealing with. Nevertheless, we all continued to work hard and try to find any roads forward.
As the months moved along, my small team and I developed a business strategy on our own for how we should launch our new telecom company and presented it to the notorious Ms. S and her team. Weeks went by and I heard nothing back. So, one day I asked Ms. S if she had given the plan any more thought and about next steps.
She said she is waiting to hear back from their province-owned mobile network (our direct competitor) to see if they wanted to use any of our ideas first! At first, I thought that the language barrier was causing us to misunderstand each other. So, I repeated the question. But I got the same response.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This would be like, in Canada, if someone from Rogers Telecom contacted Bell Canada to report all of their business plans for review, approve, and take whatever they wanted for themselves.
Then, as I should have predicted, days before we launched, our competitor employed our exact strategy to promote their own cell service. Ms. S explained that she had an obligation to share our plan with our competitor because they were a government ministry. Her loyalty was to the communist party, not her job. So much for understanding the competition!
At this point, her interference had become unbearable. We asked our local President, Mr. C, to fire her, since she was his secretary, as well as the local head of sales and marketing. He smiled and nodded, leading us to believe it would be taken care of. Then, the next day, Ms S was named the Senior Head of Marketing and Sales. Instead of firing her, he promoted her instead!
This is when I realized we were living in a parallel universe. The business titles were insignificant. You see, within the communist party, Ms S was senior to Mr. C. While it might look to us like he had more authority, he really took orders from her. I learned that a person could be a cleaner and be more senior to the person whose office they were cleaning.
It was at about this time that we realized…our business was doomed.
While we were working in China, our company’s team in India had launched services in the Rajasthan Province. There, their advertising campaign was a combination of TV commercials and painted billboards they called hoards. We had tried but failed to convince our partner company’s Chinese Board that advertising was essential, which we thought was unbelievable.
They finally relented and allowed us to do billboards. I had already conceived the messages and images I wanted on them. But unlike Canadian billboards, which are printed and then glued on, these would be hand painted.
The large billboards were painted over the weekend and as we drove to work on Monday morning, expecting to see a large triumph for our department, we saw that the rain (and it rained a lot) had streaked the paint and all of our efforts were for nothing.
This was the final Coup de Gras when I realized that, for my own sanity, I had to leave China. Luckily, at the same time, our company had just won a mobile licence in Romania! I wasn’t even sure exactly where that was but I didn’t care. I was ready to go!
On New Year’s Eve of 1996, Al and I were, thankfully, on our way to Romania. We celebrated with a layover in Hong Kong on the same night the United Kingdom turned the city back over to the Chinese government. We were at the roof bar at the Peninsula Hotel at this momentous occasion. And then, shortly after that, we were landing in Bucharest for our next adventure together.
As you’ll recall, our IT man was a friendly sort. But beneath that exterior lay a cynical mind. From the outset, he suspected that the Chinese partners had a strategy of learning from us and then parting ways. He was correct! It just took a few years.
In each province, the Chinese ministry of telecom had selected a different operator. Bell South (a US firm) in Beijing, France Telecom in Guanghua and so on 26 times. Once the foreign operators had purchased and installed the mobile exchanges and a sufficient number of cell sites, trained the locals, and developed a management structure, the China Unicom people basically made an offer. We were mandated to take their offer to buy us out at a price, at best, equivalent to our investment.
It was a tough lesson to learn, especially as our core team of 12 expats had lived under hardship conditions and believed that we had a tremendous opportunity to build a massive business. In time, we were proven correct. China became the largest mobile business in the world, utilizing the two-operator concept. This was a lesson our company hoped not to repeat and mostly succeeded (except for Brazil and India, but those are stories for another day!)
While we had the same mission in Romania as we did in China, the experience couldn’t have been more different. But before we dive into that, for the next two weeks, we will look a little into my time in India.
~ Karla xoxo
Karla Stephens-Tolstoy has stage 4 chronic cancer, diagnosed in 2018. She is Her2 negative, IDC. She takes 50 pills daily, including Ibrance and letrozole, her cancer fighting pills. Karla is the co-owner of the online store StandUpSpeakUp.ca with her son, Zach. Through this venture, they are proud donors to various charities. All proceeds of their limited edition Healing and Empowerment Scarves are donated to Wellspring Cancer Support Centre.