Feature / 19 Jun 2022

Two Journeys - Same Destination

Political ructions, pandemics, armed conflicts and scary weather events have spread doubt, discomfort and dismay far and wide. Stress and related mental health issues are increasing in most countries. But turbulence and disruption only become problems if you’re not used to them. Some people have already had plenty of rocky moments and are well attuned to navigating a bumpy road in life.

That’s how it is for GAC China boss Simon Xu and his Taiwan counterpart Kenny So. Their working lives are similar today, but their childhoods were vastly different. Simon spent his early years weathering the political and social changes brought by the Chinese Cultural Revolution. He recalls the steady hand of his grandfather guiding him through the turmoil.

Kenny was born in Hong Kong. He was one of five children and his parents had to hustle hard to provide for them. The backstreets of Kowloon were where he met his first life challenges.

Tough times breed strong minds
Both Simon and Kenny know what it takes to succeed because they know what it’s like not to. Circumstances don’t so much influence childhood as dictate how it is navigated across a spectrum of risk and/or protective factors.

“Grandfather was important in my childhood because he was where I found certainty in an uncertain world,” says Simon. “He showed me what to do to take care of family and his example helps me today to take care of business.”

Kenny So right with his mother and younger brother Ming
Kenny So (right) with his mother and younger brother Ming.

Kenny’s early days were spent looking after himself. If a youngster doesn’t get flattened by poverty, drugs or crime on the hard streets of Hong Kong, it’s not because they’re big and strong but because they’re smart. Kenny was smart. Smart enough not to finish high school but to continue his education where he’d started it – out in the real world where the rules aren’t necessarily fair and the competitive challenges can be brutal. He started work in logistics as a nobody and quickly came to be recognised as a somebody.

Where Simon’s youth coincided with a general lack of everything and the slow crawl through the 1970s, Kenny’s hard times ended the minute he had a regular wage and money in his pocket.

“I gave most of my wages to my mother because she had a hard life and a family to support,” he says. “But I kept some back just to have something to spend for myself.” Like a lot of youth, he spent his money on cheerful but useless things like entertainment and beer. Lots of beer.

And then he stopped. As he reached his early 20s, Kenny took a longer-term focus. Working for European logistics outfits gave him skills and disciplines and his raw intelligence and street smarts added the push he needed to succeed. Party time ended and his march to Managing Director began.

A military education
Simon’s journey was more focused than Kenny’s, possibly because China lacked many of the youthful distractions of Hong Kong. Simon seized his chance and joined the army, not so much because he wanted to be a soldier but because there were education opportunities for bright recruits. Senior officers took note and he was off to military university where he was able to fulfil two dreams on the same day – enter college and wear a sharp uniform. He rose through the ranks to Lieutenant. And then he quit.

Simon 0609

It’s important to note that Simon became an adult during the period when Deng Xiaoping was opening up China to the world. It was a wild and raucous time as China’s pent-up commercial energies were unleashed. Simon saw the chance to be part of China’s economic growth. He stepped out of his uniform and into logistics, something that he knew nothing about. But like Kenny, he knew how to learn. And like Kenny, he received a schooling in European logistics standards and processes. The disciplines of Simon’s military background chimed with the disciplines of China’s growing ‘just in time’ economy.

The Taiwan connection
By August 1998, Kenny was the branch manager of Interforward’s operation in Taiwan. In May the following year, GAC bought Interforward’s Asian operations, but saw no reason to disrupt the energetic Mr So, who was currently building up business in Taipei. Kenny became the MD of GAC Taiwan in 2006.

Kenny GAC 2

Across the Taiwan Strait, Simon helped found GAC China. He’s been the GM since 2002 and MD since 2014. From this point on, the two separate (and separated) lives of Mr Xu and Mr So come to resemble each other more closely.

There are no politics
Businesspeople working in places like Taiwan/Taipei expect their governments to facilitate their success. It boils It can be messy and slow, and is never perfect, but it grumbles along well enough, most of the time. In China/Shanghai, Beijing doesn’t have to wait for market forces or lengthy government debates to generate change. Beijing controls many levers of business, and it tweaks them regularly and sometimes without warning.

However, in Simon’s ears the politics of the economy is just noise. The demands of customers are his priority, and the job is to serve them well no matter what the prevailing policy says. Smart, pragmatic businesspeople adjust and accommodate to changes when they come and keep their eyes firmly on the budget.

Likewise, Kenny too doesn’t pay much attention to the noise from the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament. He's busy fighting to hold on to business and find new customers. In this and many other ways, Simon and Kenny’s lives are now easily recognisable to each other. Their markets are changing rapidly and the competition is tough. They each face the tyranny of the bottom line, the pressure to trim costs and raise margins, and the ceaseless pursuit of new business. They both have families and staff that rely on them. But turbulence and disruption are things they’ve been handling since early days. The Taiwan Strait may separate them, but the realities of daily life and business have put them on the same road.

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