China's burgeoning entrepreneurial ranks have been a boon for coaching supremo Eva Wong. Anthony Lawrance meets the mainland's doyenne of self-help
This will be a night to remember, instinct whispers to me as I take my seat near the stage in the cavernous auditorium. Over my shoulder are nearly 800 twittering twenty-somethings bursting with nervous energy. All I can see is a swathe of tuxedos matched by a rainbow of evening gowns. We are in a hotel in Shenzhen's Futian district, where 'something like the Oscars' is about to begin.
Substituting for movie stars are a parade of senior management consultants. But trying to pin the label of management consultant on Eva Wong would be like calling Cher a lounge singer. Her company is a 'human institution' and its business is 're-engineering the talent of people'.
This evening, Top Human is handing out statuettes to graduates of its training - or rather, its 'coaching'. These are people who have discovered their potential and are busy climbing their respective mountains, a metaphor reinforced by posters plastered everywhere of a man standing silhouetted atop one, overlooking a sea of clouds.
The show starts with lasers slicing through a smoke-filled stage as pounding rock music gets the audience going. It soon switches to classical, as a scene from The Phantom of the Opera is performed in English. It brings the house down and the evening roars on. Pausing occasionally for a soppy Chinese ballad or a dazzling dance extravaganza, awards are handed out to an array of entrepreneurs, state-owned company managers, actresses, singers, writers, and even sportsmen.
It's all happening amid an orgy of hugging, back-slapping and high-fiving. Philip Cheng, a TV and movie personality from Hong Kong, keeps up a bilingual banter to shame Billy Crystal. He saves the best for last, abandoning the podium and bringing the crowd to its feet by belting out a stirring rendition of Frank Sinatra's My Way.
That should be enough to curl the toes of the most liberal-minded cadre. And so I lean over to see the guest of honour seated a few rows down. Dong Xianfeng is the chairman of the centre for economic research at the National Academy of Education Administration, under the Ministry of Education. His opening speech had earlier been delivered in classic Beijing-speak, a few syllables at a time, to an audience of sighs and beeping cell phones.
The key message had been that President Hu Jintao believes strong companies need strong human resources. It seems safe to deduce that if all this merriment creates companies strong enough to stand on the world stage, people like Mr Dong should consider it the best thing for China.
His face gives nothing away, but his body language suggests it is proving hard for a senior party official to sit through such a blatant paean to individualism. So when it comes time for the grand finale - the appearance of the guru herself - I wonder whether Ms Wong is going to tone things down.
Not a chance. Wearing a headset and dressed casually, Steve Jobs-style, she walks out of the audience as a video showing images of her life to date flashes up on a big screen. 'I was just a simple housewife,' she says softly. 'But I realised there was something more inside me, something more for me to do with my life.'
A seasoned motivational speaker then goes to work, and for the next 20 minutes she has the audience transfixed while recounting her humble beginnings in Hong Kong, her move to Canada, her education in the US, and then her return home in 1995. Gradually, she begins to stir the room's emotions while tracing the path of her transformation to a successful businesswoman-philanthropist, someone determined to bring the magic of her coaching techniques to those who needed it most. And China clearly needed it the most. 'I realised that I could help, that I could make a difference,' she says, her voice rising and starting to wobble.
But the point is not what she has done with her life, Ms Wong concludes. It is what everyone in the audience - and everyone they know - is capable of doing with theirs. 'Live your life,' she finally sobs. 'Live your dreams.' The lights go out and the audience erupts.
It's a more subdued show the next time I see Ms Wong. About a month later, she strides across the top-floor office of a Guangzhou high-rise. She is still a performer, but a businessperson too. A smart suit and wide-rimmed glasses make no attempt to hide her slight chubbiness. She's ready to talk about her inspiration, and the market for coaching in China.
'I first realised that I had to come back to China during a visit with a Canadian diplomatic delegation in 1986,' she says. 'I could feel my roots, and knew - really knew- for the first time that I was not just a Hongkonger, but Chinese. It was like an electric shock.
'But it was not easy. Materialism was rampant, and productivity was low. I felt I could make a difference, but I needed a new set of skills.' And so Ms Wong returned to Canada and the US, where she took up formal education in 'experiential training', or coaching. She also had a stint at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
In 1995, she came back to Hong Kong with an American company. 'But they were focused on the whole of Asia. I just wanted China,' she says.
And so she started all over again, incorporating Top Human in Vancouver that year and establishing its headquarters in Hong Kong.
It took Top Human about a year to crack the mainland market, setting up its first office in Guangzhou in March 1996. The next three years were cautious, as Ms Wong and her staff felt their way around. But by April 1999, she had moved the company's headquarters to Shenzhen and staff numbers quickly doubled to about 70. A bit more than a year later, she journeyed north, establishing a Shanghai office in May 2001, and a Beijing office seven months afterwards.
Then she learned a hard lesson, as most entrepreneurs inevitably do on the mainland. On June 28, 2002, an article appeared in a Guangdong newspaper suggesting that Top Human was running a scam and that the fees they charged trainees were a rip-off. It was the beginning of a concerted smear campaign, whose origins Ms Wong won't disclose. Business dried up, just as the company was extending itself financially amid expansion plans. 'We nearly went bankrupt,' she says.
But Ms Wong and her team found a way out of the crisis, maintaining their confident approach with clients but adopting more subtle recruitment tactics. And when expansion plans became feasible again, they went for franchising rather than establishing wholly owned branches: Chengdu, in Sichuan province, was first in July 2003, followed by Taiyuan, in Shanxi, five months later and Qingdao in Shandong three months after that.
With a current staff of more than 180, Ms Wong claims Top Human is the biggest coaching company on the mainland. She says she is still focused, though, on what she can do for her country rather than what her country can do for her. 'Coaching is about opening your mind, changing your mindset,' she says. 'Of course this can create a certain conflict with traditional values here. But officials have seen glimpses of light in our ability, and now we are working with Mr Dong's department to find ways to apply our learning methods in the education system.'
That doesn't mean Ms Wong is about to walk away from a business opportunity. She lights up when I mention Oprah Winfrey, who has grown a multi-billion-dollar media empire in the US. 'Yes, you know I have never seen her but her story inspires me,' she says, adding that she has been thinking about TV shows in China.
Top Human already has a glossy bilingual magazine distributed to about 30,000 of its clients.
And the future looks bright from where some experienced foreign observers of Chinese socio-political trends stand. One senior diplomat at the US Consulate in Guangzhou, who attended the Shenzhen awards ceremony, says: 'This is coming at exactly the right time. The way China is opening up, individual opportunism is the name of the game. People need help to build confidence in their innate abilities, which have been suppressed for so long. I just wonder how far the party will let them go.'
It has obviously helped that Top Human has cultivated close relations with Mr Dong's office under the education ministry, receiving official certification in October 2003. A month later, it repaid the reward by becoming the first mainland-based coaching company to win prestigious accreditation by the International Coaching Federation.
I'm almost afraid to ask the next question, but it has to come: is she planning a public float? 'Sure, in 2007. Hong Kong is our top choice, but maybe we'll take a look at the Nasdaq.' That would certainly be the best way of getting Oprah's attention.