In 2004 and 2005 I worked on a massive project. Warner decided to do a home video distribution joint venture in Mainland China. I was involved in most aspects of the project, and it was a godawful mess.
The CFO asked me what kind of person we should recruit as MD of China. I told him it should be someone born in China, educated in the US or UK and with some western work experience before returning to China. This way the person would understand the local market and the western way of doing business. We found a great guy who matched this profile.
But for some reason Warner decided to put the global head of supply chain in charge of the project overall. He was a former head of sales and didn’t have a great understanding of how things operated in China. He thought it was like the U.S. – in the U.S. the stores couldn’t stock our DVDs fast enough and they were used as loss leaders to get people into the stores. In China, no one gave a shit about legal DVDs – our licensee there was charging the equivalent of US$15 for a DVD, compared to the $0.50 you’d pay on any street corner for pirate copies. The few stores in China that stocked legal DVDs didn’t put them up front by the entrance or the cash register, they were hidden away in the basement. This SVP thought he could dictate commercial terms on our DVDs to the major Chinese chains, all of whom told him where he could stick his DVDs.
Our China MD was great. He knew business – and he also knew how to work hard for 12 hours and then gather up everyone in the office and go out and party for another 6 hours. It would get to be 8 or 9 PM and he’d gather up all the women in the office (and me) and we’d go out to consume massive quantities of food, drink and fun. But he was getting frustrated. He’d ask me why we hired him, with all of his experience and knowledge, and then try to dictate to him how to run the business, especially when he knew we were wrong. He resigned after six months.
He was replaced by a guy from the UK who had been to China once as a tourist. But the new guy followed orders. I also grew frustrated with the supply chain SVP because he didn’t believe in using project plans. Our weekly conference calls went like this: Dept A: we are three months behind schedule. And then two hours spent with all the other department representatives asking how that would impact their project schedules. I kept asking for a consolidated project plan to make management easier. He kept telling me he didn’t like Microsoft Project.
I moved most of my Hong Kong team to Shanghai to work on the project and tried to move there myself, getting a service apartment near the office. Then regional management asked how I could manage the region from Shanghai (um, email? telephone?) and made me move back to Hong Kong.
One adventure (out of many) that I’ll share. There was this place, I think it was called Malone’s. Great burgers and a Filipino cover band. I’m there one night having dinner and I see this gorgeous Chinese woman at the bar. I also see at least 10 different guys hitting on her and all striking out, so I don’t even bother to try. A few hours later I’m at California, a disco owned by some of the same people who owned the place of the same name in Hong Kong. I knew one of the owners, so I had a member card. I’m walking past the dance floor and I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around and it’s that same Chinese woman I’d seen earlier in Malones. We dance, we drink, we talk. She tells me she’s from Hong Kong, works in the fashion business, and is in Shanghai to meet some designers. I’m thinking, “Great, she’s hot, she’s from Hong Kong, maybe this can turn into something.” Around 3 AM we head back to my place. We get to my place, get in the door, and the first thing out of her mouth is “Amy no money.” Well, it’s 3 AM, I’m drunk and horny and open to suggestions. Except her suggestion was that I should give her 3,000 RMB. My suggestion was that she should get the hell out of there but she wasn’t leaving. We negotiated. We argued. I think we finally got tired and passed out. The strangest thing is that she kept texting me for another two years telling me how much she missed me.
Anyway, the project finally completed – my parts were done on time and under budget – and the office opens for business. Everyone flies out from Burbank for the opening party, including the CIO who hates my guts. He walked around the office, followed by his little entourage, inspecting everything, looking for something he can use against me. Finally, not finding anything else, he asks me why I chose the tax reporting system that was being used. I told him, “I didn’t choose it, the Chinese government told me which system I had to use.” But this guy was obtuse. “Well, surely they gave you a list of choices and you picked one from the list, why this one?” I told him there was no list, this is China, the government doesn’t offer a choice. He didn’t get it. We did the same dance three or four times, surrounded by people, until others also spoke up to set him straight. It became another reason for him to hate me.
Having the Shanghai office gave me a small advantage. I was able to enroll at Fudan University to study Putonghua. I could go to class for three hours in the morning and then work in the Shanghai office in the afternoon. I stayed in the Foreign Students Dormitory (US$400 for a month) and bought a cheap bicycle for getting around.
My first day at the school, they asked us each what Mandarin we knew. I knew only one complete sentence and I said that and they thought I was an expert. They put me into an advanced class. I had to beg for three days to be put back into a beginner class.
Everyone else in my class was a university student from Europe, part of a larger group, there for the summer. They’d all go out together after class, more than likely speaking their native language to each other all day long. I’d go out alone and had to use what I was learning. Lots of conversations with taxi drivers on my way to the office – they always figured I was a professor and were always surprised to discover I was a student. And when I’d tell them what I was studying, I’d get additional lessons in the taxi.
You probably won’t be surprised to find out that I managed to find a girlfriend in Shanghai, a sweet young woman who didn’t speak any English. This really gave me incentive to up my game. She would laugh like crazy when helping me study, telling me that it was the kind of basic stuff they teach to five year olds. Even though I ended up getting sick my last couple of weeks there and missing a lot of classes, I passed the final and got my certificate.
I also got to be friendly with Koji Hase, the co-inventor of the DVD. Koji was at Toshiba at the time. He was the head of their CD-ROM division. He had an idea – get the CD-ROM drive out of the computer and the office and into the living room. But he’d need software for that. At the same time, Warren Lieberfarb (the founder of Warner Home Video and its president for 25 years) knew that the rental business wasn’t cutting it for Warner. VHS tapes sucked and no one was buying laser discs. He wanted a new format. Koji called Warren and suggested they meet to discuss a new idea. Warren said that he would give Koji 30 minutes. Koji figured this was a big enough idea and he flew from Tokyo to L.A. for that meeting. He walked into Warren’s office – there were 2 sandwiches and 2 bottles of water on the table and Koji thought, “that’s it, I’m really only getting 30 minutes.” Eight hours, and several bottles of wine later, they had an agreement and the DVD was born. Toshiba and Warner would share the patents for the DVD, something which brought Warner billions of dollars. Warner later fired Warren for demanding his share of those profits (long story for another time, it involved the whole mess that got created when AOL bought Time Warner).
When Koji left Toshiba after 30 years, Warren hired him at Warner as head of Asia Pacific. Koji knew nothing about the business. Warren said, “Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.” And then Warren got fired. All of the other executives in the company looked at Koji, this brilliant sweet guy, and thought his English was funny and ignored him. Then Koji made what was seen as a major error – one which I won’t go into now but which cost the company a few million bucks in Japan. Koji was convinced he had done the right thing but the pencil pushers back at HQ didn’t agree. He was pushed aside as head of the region and given a “window seat” - a job with nothing to do, the ultimate insult in Japan. He’d never much liked me; he thought I was pretty strange, and I probably was. But I always made it a point to stop at his office whenever I came to Tokyo to say hello. No one else was doing that anymore. “You know I never liked you, why do you always come to my office to greet me?” And I said to him, “You’re Koji Hase. I wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for you. I don’t care about the others, I want to show you the respect you deserve.” We became drinking buddies, going to these expensive bars that I could never afford and letting the nights go by consuming bottle after bottle of whisky and soju, having what at least seemed like deep philosophical conversations.
With the successful launch of the China business, and my large role in it, I thought I was going to get promoted to VP. Then they promoted my counterpart in EMEA to VP but not me. I asked where my promotion was. And I found out that both the CIO and the supply chain SVP had blocked it. I’d made some pretty strong enemies.
So I started job hunting. I found something. Something that looked pretty good. Since my boss was a friend, I told him what was going on. He begged me to stay. He told me he’d get me the promotion I deserved. I turned down the other offer and stayed. He didn’t get me the promotion. To be exact about it, instead of being promoted to Vice President, I was promoted from Director to Executive Director, with no increase in salary. All I got out of the deal was a new business card.
(All of us Directors in the technology group in WB always had the same request – a business card that just said “Director” without mentioning our department or anything else. The request was always rejected.)
So I was pretty pissed off. But I managed to rationalize it. I was making a relatively large salary. I loved the people I was working with. My job wasn’t very difficult or stressful. (Asia represented around 10% of the company’s gross revenue. My boss was kept busy dealing with issues from the US and EMEA. As long as no one in Asia was complaining about me – and they never had any cause to – he basically left me alone to do my thing.) So I figured to myself, okay, I’ll just ride this out for a few more years. I’ll get my finances straightened out, sock some money away, and probably be able to retire when I’m 60 or 62.
But as they say, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.