The Chinese company Gree Electric became the world's largest maker of home air conditioners largely because of the efforts of an iron-willed woman whose work ethic is legendary in a nation known for industriousness.
The house that Sister Dong built
Gree is the world's biggest maker of home air-conditioners and as such is responsible for keeping many households in the UAE chilled to a perfect temperature when the summer heat is at its fiercest.
"Sister Dong", as Ms Dong is known by her employees, who appear to adore her, is a tough woman, as you would expect the vice chairwoman and president of a major company such as the state-owned Gree Electric to be. But she also has a ready smile and a sense of humour.
The youngest of seven in a family of ordinary workers in Nanjing, she is a legend in China. Her book Regretless Pursuit about her success in running Gree Electric, is a best seller. In 2002 , a TV drama about her life was a big hit. Last year she was named one of BusinessWeek's 40 most-influential people in China. "I love a challenge. I stick to my principles. In my view, doing the best job is very important, which has also helped me to work my way from the basic level to a leadership position," she says.
We have just toured the manufacturing plant in the Pearl River Delta city of Zhuhai. What we have seen is a model plant, clean and efficient, and the whole facility seems more like a university campus. About 24,000 of the Gree workforce of 40,000 are based here. There are some legendary tales doing the rounds in China about Ms Dong, celebrating her toughness. Once, when her 12-year-old son visited her in Zhuhai, she put him on a bus home as she didn't have time to take him to the airport, and forbade anyone else to take him.
So strict is her line on business ethics that rather than open herself to accusations of nepotism, her son had to find a job with another company, and it is said that she fell out with her brother after she refused to give him preferential treatment when he wanted to open a Gree franchise. Her tough style has earned her critics. "On the road Sister Dong has walked across, no grass will grow", one rival reportedly said.
Ms Dong, who arrived in Zhuhai in 1990, stopped the practice of deferred payment for products, insisting on no delivery unless the goods were paid for up front. And she imposed new rules on the Gree Group's network of agencies, swinging the balance back in the company's favour. Her marketing skills are famous. She even managed to sell air conditioners in winter. Ms Dong believes that you have to make tough choices to be a success, and be prepared to make sacrifices. China's emergence offers many opportunities, but they come at a cost. In her case, the pursuit of success has meant that she has taken no holidays for nearly 20 years.
After her husband died of an illness, she left her then three-year-old son with his grandparents in Nanjing while she went to Zhuhai to focus on becoming a success.
"China and foreign countries have different backgrounds," she says. "In foreign countries, there is a tradition of people taking holidays, having a peaceful life with not too much pressure. But China is reforming and provides many challenges, and people have the opportunity to display their talents. So, sometimes, people have to sacrifice some of their hobbies. For instance, I like to climb mountains and I like singing, but these are not going to help solve the company's problems, so you have to make a choice if you want to be successful and give up some personal interests. The higher I rose in the company, the more responsibility I had to carry. But if sacrificing one's personal interests benefits all the people in my company, then that's what I do. If I did not pay much attention to my work, and did not make sacrifices, Gree would not be doing as brilliantly as it is now. Many people in my company are deeply moved by my deeds, and they are willing to make concerted efforts with me."
Ms Dong is proud of China's growth and the contribution of the Communist Party to this success during 30 years of reform, and she is an active delegate on the consultative body of China's annual parliament, the National People's Congress. She is not afraid to make bold statements about her responsibility as a leader. The climb up the corporate ladder is a slow one for women in China, but it is gradually becoming easier as women in the world's most populous nation draw inspiration from people such as Ms Dong, one of only a handful of women in senior executive positions in the country.
Mao Zedong once famously quoted an ancient Chinese saying: "Women hold up half the sky." In the country that Chairman Mao took over in the 1949 Communist Revolution, you could still find isolated examples of foot-binding, and women were often not given names but were referred to by number - daughter number one, or daughter number two. Modern China is more focused on pushing the rights of women, and a big reason for this is that women are an increasingly powerful economic presence as the shift from rural economies to industrial production has led to much greater participation by them in the workforce.
But there is a lot of work to be done. Women's salaries are generally a lot lower than men's, even at senior levels. In government, women hold just 1.7 per cent of the senior ministerial jobs or provincial leadership posts.
"China had 5,000 years of feudal tradition and during that period, women usually stayed at home, helped their husband and taught the children - fulfilling their duties as wives and never entering society," Ms Dong says. "However, after the Communist Party founded the People's Republic of China, they advocated the liberation of women and this has been implemented fully in the past 30 years. I believe if a woman has the determination and has the spirit of persistence, she can find her own place in this country to truly demonstrate her ability. Another part of the reform process has been the international community getting to know China and to understand that China is a big country with kind intentions. Previously many people didn't know China and occasionally misunderstood the country. The last three decades has seen China mature. The child has grown up and can make a contribution to the world."
Gree technology is used in products by brands such as General Electric, Panasonic and Whirlpool, but Ms Dong is keen to expand Gree into a global company, which is why an international sounding name was chosen. The name "Gree" was conceived to synonymously convey "joy", as in glee, "great" and "green", as in environmentally friendly.
But the company wants to push its own brands, and Ms Dong will oversee its expansion abroad. Gree has factories in Vietnam, Brazil and Pakistan producing its own brands. The company has weathered the financial crisis well and has taken steps to improve its competitiveness during the downturn. "There is no mountain that we cannot conquer. It is all about confidence," she says. "And this crisis cannot be addressed by talking. We need to make a change. When the crisis began, we strengthened our technology research and development and innovation to make products that customers really need."
Innovation is a major issue for Ms Dong, and there are signs posted throughout the campus to encourage innovative thinking. "All manufacturing companies, big or small, want innovation," she says. "But the large investment is a problem for companies. Gree is a professional corporation, and has the courage to invest to innovate. "In 2009, we have invested over 2 billion yuan (Dh1.07bn) in research and development, which is the biggest among all the domestic appliance companies.
"Small investment won't solve the innovation problem so I hope that as China develops, more companies would be willing to invest in R&D to help the march to create more global companies. Chinese corporations should also make contributions for the people of the world and improve their life." Gree also shouldered its "social responsibility" during the crisis by not firing workers. Mass layoffs at some companies in southern China led to protests and factory blockades.
"Gree would rather tighten its belt than lay off employees," Ms Dong says. "The company's interests are in accord with the interest of the country. The last 30 years of reform have created many opportunities for us, so when our country needs us to contribute, we are very willing to help." In 2008, Gree's sales increased by more than 10 per cent, while profits grew by 50 per cent. Last year, sales were on target, Ms Dong says, and profits were up 40 per cent although exports were down. The company also added 7,000 employees across its operations.
Ms Dong believes that future leaders of the company must have a strong moral basis with innovation in mind and a willingness to make sacrifices. "Gree has already cultivated many of these kinds of people," she says. "Many of our employees work overtime; some don't leave their offices until 1 or 2 in the morning. They have a spirit of persistence. "Sometimes you have to make a choice: is health more important to you, or career? That's also why you feel the different atmosphere when you enter Gree's gate.
"Many of the young people born after the 1980s don't know that things don't come easily. They have strong egos and simple aims. "But their education is lacking in one part, and that is the ability to show an interest in the wellbeing of others. In the old days, it was all about 'us' but now it's all about 'me', and I think that needs to be changed."