Strong work ethic helps TCL chairman become TV celebrity

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 April, 2003, 12:00am

TV OR NO TV? That is an easy question to answer for Tomson Li Dongsheng, chairman of one of the mainland's largest television set makers, TCL International Holdings.

As an entrepreneur who has been engaged in electrical appliance manufacturing for about two decades, Mr Li thinks and breathes TVs, but he is hardly a couch potato.

'I'm too busy to watch TV, save for news reports,' said Mr Li in his Hong Kong office.

Instead, he spends his spare time reading books, searching for inspiration to help develop his company into a 'world-class enterprise'.

It has paid off. Mr Li has helped turn a regional township business into a national brand embracing a wide range of consumer products - from TV sets to mobile phones.

This has made him a celebrity in the mainland's financial news media.

After graduating from South China University of Technology in Guangzhou in 1982, Mr Li started his career as a technician with local government-backed Huizhou TTK Household Electronic Appliances, which later evolved into TCL Holdings.

He worked his way to the top and is now chairman and general manager of the parent company.

TCL Holdings has two publicly traded arms: Hong Kong-listed TCL International Holdings and Shenzhen-listed A share TCL Communication Equipment. Still, 'you can always find books in my briefcase,' says Mr Li.

The Informer spoke with him recently.

Q: What books do you read?

A: Books on management. (To prove the point, he pulled two books out of his briefcase - Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?, an autobiography by an IBM chief executive, and Management by Proverbs.)

You have to upgrade yourself and make progress, otherwise you will become an obstacle to the company's development. I want to share in the experiences of the successful Western managers.

Q: How do Western and Chinese managers compare?

A: Our (China's) professional managers are not yet up to the job of managing large enterprises. Most of them are very much confined to their own section of industry. It is virtually impossible for them to run a business that are not in their own professional fields. But in the United States, it is common to find a professional manager successfully running a number of entirely different businesses.

In the future, a batch of Chinese firms will certainly develop into world-class enterprises. The key to this will be Chinese managers who upgrade themselves and surpass past achievements.

Q: Have you made progress?

A: Yes. If not, I would not have been able to manage a fast-growing company like TCL. The company's annual sales have grown to about 30 billion yuan (about HK$28.2 billion) from 3 billion yuan five years ago.

To manage a large firm calls for something different and more from the manager than running a small company.

Q: Do you want to have your own business instead of working for a government-backed company?

A: Well, I don't see things in this light.

Take a look at the top firms in the US. Most of their top managers or decision-makers are not shareholders, and even if they are, they only hold a very small stake. But they are devoted to the companies and have been successful. Even the families which founded the top companies hold minority stakes in them now.

Many privately owned Chinese firms have failed to grow into large companies because the founders were too obsessed with ownership and management control.

Q: Do you hold shares in TCL Holdings? If so, how many?

A: May I not answer this question? I hold a stake in it, not too big, but also not too small . . . but I see myself more as a manager than a shareholder.

Q: As a busy manager, do you still have time for your family?

A: Hardly. I feel like I have sold myself to the company.

Q: What's your ambition?

A: To develop TCL into a large, world-class enterprise.


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