Succeeding by degrees

Dong Mingzhu has been tireless in her quest to make air-conditioner firm Gree a global brand, and wants that zeal to spread on the mainland

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 4:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 December, 2013, 4:47am

Dong Mingzhu hasn't taken a day's leave in 20 years. And it shows.

Gree Electric Appliances, of which she is chairwoman, is now the world's largest household air-conditioner maker.

Evolving from an original equipment manufacturer, state-owned Gree's sales broke through the 100 billion yuan (HK$126.72 billion) mark last year. But the 59-year-old Dong is far from satisfied. Her next target: 200 billion yuan by 2016.

"You have to put your heart into work," she said. "Leading a business is not about beating others. Instead, the key lies in how you move all the people, including the managers, employees, partners and clients."

Dong is on a mission - making Gree a global brand to set an example for other Chinese-made products. Despite its growing economic might, the mainland has few readily recognisable global brands. Dong wants her firm's air-con units to make made-in-China a cool label.

"Gree air con should help the world better understand China," Dong said. "At the end of the day, Chinese brands should stand like giants worldwide."

On the mainland, Gree is a rare domestic brand in the electrical appliance sector that is recognised as a world-class player on par with international rivals. But globally, the firm still has far to go.

"We understand the benefits and necessity of having our own technology," Dong said. "So we spend freely on research and development."

Gree usually spends 3 billion to 5 billion yuan on developing products, according to estimates by industry analysts.

"We have to be a leading player in our area," she said. "I am sure we will maintain our lead through our massive R&D investments."

Dong, named one of the world's most powerful women in business by Forbes and Fortune Magazine several times, has a strong nationalistic streak and is determined to stem the bias against Chinese-made products.

"We could have secured a big order in the Middle East, but the client required us to make Gree air cons at a local plant since they felt our homemade products are not trustworthy," she said. "I said 'no' because the request was an insult to Chinese products. Products made by Chinese are by no means low-quality."

Dong majored in statistics when she graduated from an institute specialising in nurturing government cadres in Wuhu, Anhui province, in 1975. After graduation, she took an administrative job at a government research institute in Nanjing.

In 1990, spurred by the rising tide of economic activity in the country following major reforms in the south, she quit her job and headed to Guangdong province to look for new opportunities.

She was appointed manager of Gree's sales department in 1996 and promoted to the deputy general manager's position the following year.

Dong's Iron Lady-style management won accolades nationwide at the time, with Gree's sales network expanding exponentially as the company began to grow rapidly.

In 2001, Gree designated Dong as the president before giving her the dual role of chairwoman and president last year.

"Yes, I am by all means a powerful boss of the company," she said. "But the power is used to ensure everyone in the company complies with company rules."

Any mention of Gree's rivals is an invitation for a stern sermon on Gree's unbeatable status in the market and the superiority of its products.

Asked about the difference between the internationalisation strategies between Gree and Haier, another leading home appliance maker on the mainland with a presence in various foreign markets, including the United States, Dong said: "Haier is just good at after-sales service. Look at their air-con sales figure in the domestic market. It's just one-eighth of ours."