Dr. Qinglin Zheng's Journey

One Clariant

ONE Clariant. Naturally, that begs the question: what sets one star apart from trillions of other stars? And what sets one individual apart from billions of other people? And what distinguishes one employee from thousands of other employees? Possibly nothing, but then of course EVERYTHING. Each life ultimately has a tale to tell. And this deals with the way to the horizon. And beyond.

Let’s just call it an adventure and meet our exemplary protagonist. He is in fact too modest to bear the burden placed upon him for the sake of the big picture. And yet there he is: Qinglin Zheng; 42 years old; a chemist who earned his doctorate in Germany, so »Doctor« Zheng to you and me. Married, father of two sons. Clariant employee for six and a half years, currently General Manager of the plant in Zhenjiang in the Chinese province of Jiangsu.

He strides purposefully through his production facility – equipped with hard hat, goggles, work coat, and safety shoes – and checks everything is as it should be. He is true to his motto, »Seeing something for yourself is better than hearing about it a thousand times.«

As he walks he sticks to the prescribed safety routes, always setting a good example for his employees. He never cuts corners in the outside area, always sticking closely to where the pedestrian crossings take him. Even in the warehouse he follows the designated yellow transport paths, only changing his route if he spots something amiss.

His orders rule here. His top maxim is the five-S checklist, which originates from Japanese corporate culture but is now accepted the world over: seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu and shitsude (sorting, setting in order, systematic cleaning, standardizing and sustaining). And on the walls there are pictures taken by him showing how a workstation or work area should look. These pictures – in the production area, warehouse, laboratory, offices, and even next to the large tool cabinet on the plant floor – allow employees to compare at a glance the way things should be with the reality of how they are.

This guarantees a high degree of process and quality assurance and efficiency as well as a sense of duty and cleanliness and is extremely effective. That is also Qinglin Zheng’s goal. He trains his employees because he wants to bring them to »a new level, and that’s a global standard,« as he enthusiastically phrases it.

Chemistry is no simple business. Not anywhere, but particularly not in China. Namely because the Chinese people have known since Confucius that »human beings stumble over mole hills, not over mountains.« The developments of the past few decades have been very challenging for any one individual to keep up with. What counts now, in Dr. Zheng’s opinion, is to create the mindset needed to fulfill the demands of modern business, technological and production processes. His key words here are individual responsibility and diligence, work ethic and commitment, but also company benefits and employee appreciation as well as sustainable thinking and actions.

If this sounds like a mission, that is the intention. Qinglin Zheng stands behind these principles based on his own career and the lessons he has learned. One in particular governs his actions in dealings with his employees and co-workers as well as with his friends and family: »A role model has unlimited power.« He says this and smiles. »It is a quotation from Mao Zedong. I remember it well from my childhood.«

Qinglin Zheng himself was a child of that distant era. He was born in 1970 during the cultural revolution. His country was going through a difficult period in its history. »I was concerned as a young person, to believe that we could make significant change.«

The fact is, there was no big change expected. And certainly not for him, sharing a roof over his head with a water buffalo, two pigs, and several chickens.

The son of a rice grower, he grew up in a simple dwelling built of clay with no running water or electricity. His days consisted of hard work in the fields below the Dragon Mountains, where he collected wood in the wild and impassable forests for his mother’s fireplace. A single wok stood on the hearth, which she would rub with a bacon rind since there was never enough money for oil or fat.

They were poor people, blessed only with offspring – seven boys in all. The sixth-born drowned in the river. The youngest son was exchanged by his parents for a girl from the neighboring village. This was what the mother wanted. She did not have a daughter but had always wished for one. And he, the fifth-born son, almost starved during a very hard winter. His oldest brother fed him mice he had caught. His life literally hung by this one thread.

It is an almost unbelievable story, even for him, who still remembers vividly sitting in the candlelight of his home and learning »simply everything, because I didn’t know what was important.« This was a boy who walked five kilometers to school barefoot and received letters from the third-eldest brother admonishing him not to give up. He who when the news reached him that he had been accepted at university, hurled the stones that he had been carrying to build a small wall, and cried out »Never again!«, and later, who set off for Europe to study, with the financial assistance of his brother.

He stayed for 13 years and seven months. During this time he knew only his books, his university studies, his part-time job, and later his job as assistant production manager at Clariant. To be diligent, to learn, and to work were his life principles. So it was also on the day of his civil wedding ceremony. After the ceremony he went to work the late shift, and his new wife returned to the restaurant to wash dishes. They took only two trips during this time, which seemed like an eternity, one to explore a little bit of Italy and one to visit their favorite city, Vienna – beautiful Vienna on the blue Danube.

Then came the offer to return to his homeland, China. »The people at Clariant had a lot of confidence in me, but I was hesitant at first. In my memory China was backward compared with Europe. On the other hand I was obviously also aware of the progress the country had made, but I only had a vague idea of what had really happened there.« Really a mystery. »Still today I often think that my brain works too slowly to be able to take everything in,« says Qinglin Zheng. He often feels that he is on a stage, like an extra, and does not know what is happening to him. »Everything has developed so quickly, and everything is still moving so unbelievably fast. What an incredible, totally mind-boggling development.«

Both Qinglin Zheng’s career and China’s awakening reflect the idea of an ascension out of nothing. Two quotes from the reformer Deng Xiaoping provided key motivation to Zheng in his early days, when they appeared one day on the wall of his high school in the provincial city of Longjing. The first read »Education must be geared towards the direction of modern society and the values of the future.« And the second read »The country is in your heart, and you must open your eyes to the rest of the world.« That is the quiet revolution. Now, it seems, anything is possible.

Today, thirty years later, China knows only superlatives. It is the second largest economy on the planet with growth rates consistently above 8%. It is the strongest exporting nation in the world, the largest domestic market with 1.35 billion people, and at the same time the world’s largest manufacturing country and soon probably its biggest automobile producer.

In less than twelve years China has increased its vehicle output tenfold and predicts that in 2013 it will produce more cars than old Europe for the first time (19.6 million vs. 18.3 million). It is also the country of high-speed trains, with some reaching speeds in excess of 300 kilometers per hour (over 200 mph) on over 7,000 kilometers of track. And a space travel nation – also that. It is even a seagoing superpower with its own recently launched aircraft carrier. And of course it is also the country with the fastest-growing megacities on our planet.

Just look at Shanghai with its almost 23 million inhabitants. This endless sea of concrete. Urban architecture, seemingly thrown up from a mighty eruption. Towers and skyscrapers made of steel, glass, and concrete. Above it, there’s hardly any sky, and one wonders whether the sun even shines at all. But in there the earth is still quaking. The traffic on the ten-lane major thoroughfares, which are supported by stilt-like piers, is like a mighty lava flow. It glows fiery red, illuminated by thousands of rear lights. And life pulses with tremendous power. Everything is colorful and loud and extremely lively. Always bustling, always fast-paced, always new. Full of energy, full of hunger and ambition, and filled with international flair.

The world’s largest corporations manage their Asian businesses from here – including Clariant. The company’s Greater China headquarters are located in the Lin Kong Economic Zone in the Changning District, right next to the headquarters of automotive supplier Bosch on the Linhong Road.

»There is a secret about time in our country and in this city,« says Dr. Zheng. »Here months count the same as years do in other places.« Since the end of 2012 he and his family also live in Shanghai, China’s capital of finance (most important stock market), trade (largest container port in the world), and industry (pharmaceutical and chemical, automotive, computer, and electronics industries).

It is primarily because of his two sons that Dr. Zheng has been willing to lead a commuter’s life. He spends five days a week at his workplace in Zhenjiang and then two days at home with his wife and family. »I am always thinking about the children,« he says. »What’s the point of earning money, if not for them? Their future is our top priority.«

Theirs is a typical Chinese household focused on learning. There is a piano and piano lessons for the children. Dr. Zheng plays chess (a traditional Chinese pastime) with his eldest son. The mother, who herself studied business administration in Germany and who enjoys playing the accordion ever since, now dedicates herself exclusively to her family. She organizes their daily life, supervises homework, limits computer access, encourages them to participate in regular sports activities, and also functions as family finance minister.

In any case, Hengda (7) and Hengli (11) are to have the best possible opportunities for a golden future and, as their mother Cuiyun Wu points out, this includes »not only a certain discipline but, above all, the best possible education.« That is also something that Shanghai is known for: classes are small, the teachers are excellent, and the universities are considered among the best in the country.

Zhenjiang is different. Small by Chinese standards with only three million inhabitants, but no less dynamic. It is a fast-growing, prosperous manufacturing location with a state-of-the-art chemical industrial park. The production facilities of some big international companies are concentrated in an area of no less than twenty square kilometers. Clariant is one of them.

The »multi-purpose plant« inaugurated in 2009 for the manufacture of over 100 products for Industrial & Consumer Specialties, Oil & Mining Services and Textile Chemicals, is less than two hundred meters from the wide Yangtze River (Chang Jiang). A new container port is currently being built there, and its massive loading bridges greet Dr. Zheng first thing in the morning as he makes his way to the office. Being the first person at work is a matter of course for him. He goes on to say that »When there is a problem, then it is first and foremost my problem, as I am the manager.«

He manages the plant in a cooperative yet firm manner. »Consensus is important. I always try to reach it in dialogue with my employees, for as we say in China: three individuals together equal one genius. If there are still differences, however, then I decide.«

This may sound easy but requires a high level of personal commitment from him. He shows this not only at the weekly table tennis and basketball games with his colleagues but in general. And it also requires a high degree of tolerance and concern. In turn, all of these efforts create an excellent working atmosphere. Of course, you have to make this a credible part of daily life, but that is his goal. »During my time in Europe I learned a lot about getting along with people,« says Qinglin Zheng. »Things like loyalty and esteem really count. They are part of our corporate culture at Clariant, and for my people they set Clariant apart from its competitors.« And this explains why he is in high demand for discussions with the local government officials of the Zhenjiang New Area, where both his foreign experience and his modern management style are welcome. The company’s Family Day also fits in this picture. It is Sunday and the flags are flying at the entrance gate to welcome 43 employees, their wives and husbands, their parents and their children. The first event of its type, it is hoped it will become a tradition and is intended to be an ongoing initiative, as Dr. Zheng explains. It will create identity, inform people in detail about working, environmental and safety conditions, and contribute to a better understanding of the chemical industry. And it is designed to »honor family members for their cooperation and understanding when it is necessary to work overtime, for example.«

Needless to say, his own family is also here. They arrived together from Shanghai the previous evening, traveling as always at lightning speed (300 km/h or 200 mph) on the CRH380A high-speed train. The train’s streamlined driving unit looks more like a rocket than a rail vehicle and needs only one hour and eighteen minutes for the 260-kilometer trip. Now it’s all eyes on Dr. Zheng as he delivers his speech. A speech meant to be more than simply a polite welcome. A speech, as he describes it, »that will bring new knowledge to my colleagues.« That is his goal.

»Everything has its history.« These are his opening words, before launching into his speech, touching on a wide range of topics. He tells the men and their wives and children about the development of the chemical industry in Europe and about the creation and growth of Clariant. He also tells them about its philosophy, its values, and its stated objectives. And he ends with these words: »Compared with the 1.35 billion people in our country, we are only a small universe at Clariant with our 21,000 employees. But this is what I think is significant: each one of us is very important for the whole, particularly as regards our diligence, our efforts, and our energy and drive. I always say that I am proud to be a part of Clariant as well as a part of our economic and technological development here in China. I hope you feel the same way.«

Encore. We travel together with Qinglin Zheng to the Fujian Province, where we visit the hamlet of Gaokeng at the foot of the Dragon Mountains and take a look at the area that was once his home. Even here much has changed, but there are still signs of the old days that do not fail to move him and us. There are former neighbors who are still living a typical peasant existence. School mates who work in the rice field day in, day out. A teacher greets him and he embraces the man, who is now old. The man once stood before him, a schoolboy, and said, »You must work hard, and then you, too, will be able to afford a pair of real shoes some day.«

We visit his father’s grave. He died at the early age of 65. »I arrived two hours too late since I was living in Beijing at the time and the train trip took 48 hours. He took opium so that he could hang on and see me, but I did not make it in time.«

His mother, on the other hand, is still alive. She just turned 80 and lives with her firstborn son, as is Chinese custom. »Eldest brother« is how Qinglin Zheng addresses him, and has a great deal of respect for him. He has managed to achieve a modest degree of prosperity and – like the next son – owns three clothing stores in the provincial town of Longjing.

A family reunion is arranged and everybody meets at a large round table in a restaurant. Brother number four travels to the town specifically for this occasion. He is a party member and mayor of a city of around 300,000 inhabitants, where a German truck manufacturer plans a big investment in a joint venture with a Chinese company. Also present is Qinglin Zheng’s sister, who was acquired in exchange for the seventh son. She is attractive and still quite young. »Only our third-eldest brother is missing,« says Qinglin. »I call him our high flyer. As a top executive he has made his fortune and is off traveling somewhere on the planet right now as we speak.«

They sit around the table with their mother in the middle. They then stand up and toast one another with the words of the Chinese philosopher Laozi, which sounds like both a family motto and a company slogan: »Only who knows where they are going will find their way.« To the horizon. And beyond.

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