Tinkering leads Emerson chief to an electrifying career

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 April, 2006, 12:00am

Peter Yam Kam-hon may be president of Emerson Greater China and chairman of Emerson Electric (China) Holdings, but he still has stark memories of the poverty his parents faced as new immigrants from Guangzhou in 1949.

He was just three when they joined the Hong Kong-bound throng at that time. While his father was more a businessman than an intellectual, 'even that was difficult to handle during the early days of the current administration'.

One of three children, he recalls his parents' struggle to survive in a Hong Kong whose population had literally doubled overnight. Life was very hard. There were no schools, no jobs and no housing, so it was a very difficult environment, he says.

'We had nothing. I had a lot of envy of people who could go to school and have a decent home. I felt deprived of those privileges.'

The intensity, dedication and hard work required of the newcomers to make it contributed to the subsequent success of Hong Kong, he believes. 'It was a frontier spirit, a matter of survival. Those were very difficult days,' he recalls.

Mr Yam's father ran a small transport company, equivalent to a taxi service today.

He credits his drive to succeed to his mother's constant encouragement. 'That was very good teaching. Even today I remember that. It was a tough beginning, but it gave me the incentive to work.'

Modestly, he won't say what his mother thinks of his success today. 'You must ask her. I am very proud of her. It took a lot of courage for her to bring us to Hong Kong. She was the pillar of the family.'

Mr Yam's determination saw him through Hong Kong University, where he studied electrical engineering, before he started his first job in the Kowloon factory of a big electronics firm. He found his work fascinating.

'I have a special interest in things I can play with and dismantle. I was very interested in that while growing up and it is still my interest today.'

Life as a junior design engineer was challenging, with some friction between graduates and non-graduates, but this forced him to learn rapidly the difference between theory and application. After nearly two years he joined a start-up, where he stayed for 16 years, including a stint in the United States, until a quirk of fate launched his 26-year career at Emerson.

As one of its customers, Mr Yam already knew Emerson well and to his surprise, the firm offered him the job of president in Hong Kong, replacing an expatriate.

It is a matter of some pride to Mr Yam that he never applied for the job. 'I always tell people I was approached and that is how it began,' he says.

Emerson is now a Fortune 500 company with 60 divisions, 107,800 staff worldwide and sales in financial 2005 of US$17.3 billion.

While the company was keen to make its mark back then, management were aware they were Asia novices, so someone with Mr Yam's broad experience appealed.

'Somebody like myself, who grew up here but who had also worked in the US, fitted their profile to help get started in Asia-Pacific.'

Even so, it was a big step. 'It was out of my comfort zone, but it was an interesting challenge, so I took the offer. Emerson started in Hong Kong in 1977 and the local office, now regional headquarters, was used as a bridge to try to understand the region's economic and political environment.

Emerson branched out from Hong Kong into Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan, and then into China when it began to open up in the early 1980s. China offered a lot of work but there was little prior knowledge of how to operate there. 'So my job was to show the Emerson folks the opportunities in China, what was possible and what was not,' says Mr Yam.

Under his guidance, Emerson set up the first exclusively funded enterprise in China in 1992 and in October 1993 Emerson Electric (China) Holdings was formed. Emerson had become the first US company ever to set up an investment-focused business headquartered in Shanghai.

'In those days China was not an easy place to operate. A lot of things were unknown that people grasp now,' Mr Yam says.

Foreign firms had no clue, and even though he spoke and wrote Mandarin, he found there was much to learn.

Now the mainland is Emerson's largest market outside the US, with investment in nearly 30 manufacturing centres in 11 locations, with more than 19,000 employees.

And the challenges are different. 'China is changing so fast that the local people have trouble understanding those changes themselves, let alone Emerson. That's what makes working in China so much fun, it's always evolving.'

To operate in China successfully, companies must understand the new direction guiding the latest five-year plan, he says, with its focus on sustainable environmental and regional development.

Emerson is well placed when it comes to energy efficiency, having worked closely with the Chinese government on setting and drafting energy efficiency standards in 2004. Last year the firm helped launch the China Energy Label Awareness Campaign in partnership with the Standards Administration of China and the China National Institute of Standardisation.

'We offer our experience but the most important thing is to create consumer awareness of energy saving. Obviously there is still plenty of work to do,' Mr Lam says.

After his long and illustrious career at Emerson, what would Mr Lam like his colleagues to say about him? He thinks long and hard.

'That Peter had helped Emerson to set foot in China. Although I've already been here nearly 27 years, it is the beginning of a long road. I'd like them to say Peter helped Emerson to make the first steps. That's my personal contribution and the one thing I am rather proud of.'