Canadian executive Janet De Silva moved to Hong Kong expecting a two-year stint as chief executive officer for Sun Life Financial in China. That was more than 10 years ago, and she and her husband are still here. She moved from Sun Life to running her own retail company in the booming Chinese consumer market. She now enters a new phase - as dean in Asia for the Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario. She hopes to take the 12-year old Ivey campus in Hong Kong to a new level - as a trainer of managers and as a vital conduit between Canadian companies and Chinese companies eager for breakthroughs in Canada.
What brought you to China?
I started running Sun Life's operations here in Hong Kong, and then moved up to mainland China to take over the joint venture, Sun Life Everbright Insurance. It was a very interesting time - just after World Trade Organization accession, and the market was opening up. As I jokingly say, 2006 was the year of the "zhou" because it seemed like I was in every city whose name ended in "zhou." That's what you needed to do to get approvals - meet with the local government, talk about the opportunities.
How was it for a woman?
That's interesting. The chairman of the joint venture - an executive from our partner China Everbright - said it was incredibly refreshing that a Fortune 500-scale company would send a woman to do this role because it really shattered all their impressions of how women were held back in the West … with the glass ceiling and all of that stuff. So gender was never an issue because women are pervasive throughout government and throughout industry in China.
That's not what I expected to hear.
Even so, this was the era for the government dinners where there was a lot of toasting with baijiu [strong rice liquor] That's where I played the gender card and said, "I'm a foreign woman, I can't drink that." So we'd always have a designated drinker from the marketing team who would take one for the team. And the Chinese accepted that.
Many Western visitors find the endless toasting to be their biggest challenge.
I wondered about all this drinking at [official]dinners, because most of the time you don't drink at home in China. But I was told that once somebody has a bit to drink, you see the true person and you could understand if they were an honourable person whom you wanted to do business with. Now, I always thought, as a Westerner, "Why not take them out and play golf somewhere and see if they count all their strokes?" But that's not what they do in China.
Did you leave that Sun Life job because of another opportunity?
The joint venture assignment I did with Sun Life was, in some respects, a turnaround. The original CEO was really strong in a single-city environment, but once we got into planning for rapid expansion we needed a different set of skills. When I went in, I said, "Put me in there for six months so I can get to know the team, get to know what's happening and do the diagnostics on what we thought we needed to do to turn this around." But our Chinese partner said, "Okay, we accept her conclusions, but we want her to lead the venture."
So I ended up staying there. But I had a husband and a three-year-old son I had adopted 18 months before, and they were living in Beijing. I'd be coming back two weekends a month. After three years, it got to the point I was very appreciative of the opportunity, but we were through the turnaround. There wasn't an actual next step for me, and I got into retail.
What was that about?
I ended up running retail businesses in China [for Quebec-based Fruits and Passion and the Netherlands' Cold Method] Financial services and insurance led to a natural progression into retailing.
But the issue was that the brand's actual owner knew everything about the brand, how to do merchandising, but didn't know how to recruit staff in China. In the years running Sun Life Everbright, we'd have to recruit 4,000 people in a year to support our growth plans, and so you get very good at building resource plans and putting training structures in place.
We sold our business to a Singapore company that was just mostly manufacturing electronics but wanted to get into the retail space. Now, a lot of other brands are anxiously trying to find a skill set to do training, recruiting and development in China.
How did Ivey get you?
About four months after we had sold our China retail business, Kathleen Slaughter, the existing Hong Kong dean, said, "We think you should be taking my job when I retire." I said, "But I'm not academic." But it didn't matter so much at this stage. Ivey is so strong in its home market and we're great at competing against other Canadian institutions. But here, we've got Yale, Duke, Harvard, Insead, IMD - and we're competing on a totally different level. We've got a really strong presence for the school, but it has been an outpost in many respects. The faculty fly in to do the teaching for our executive programs.
So there is an exciting strategic review looking at how we're positioned, our opportunities for growth, and how to position ourselves differently. What Harvard and Duke can't do, for example, is claim the heritage of natural resources that we have in Canada. We have more than 18 case studies on the mining sector, for example, and there is tons of interest here.
Has Canada missed the boat in China?
As a Canadian business person transferred here, you just see so much opportunity and you wish that the corporate organization back home would want to invest more out here. So yeah, you hear people saying we're missing all these opportunities. Yet at the end of the day we're still out here - and I don't think we missed the boat simply because of the future potential in our resources sector.
We are a powerhouse globally in resources and as far as China is concerned, our wheat industry is critically important. There are all these [commodity]industries that don't employ as many Canadians as the service sector, but they keep Canada very visible in China.
So you're not as negative as some?
That's right. And if we look at Canada, really how many companies do we have that can reasonably go outbound to China? A lot of the economy consists of small and medium-sized enterprises, and it's quite a daunting task for them to get well-established out here. But I think the big opportunity now is getting Chinese investment into Canada. It's really within the last 18 months - since the financial crisis - that this has become so visible.
What kept you here?
You learn and grow so much. Now, part of what keeps us here is our son, because we really want him to be immersed in Chinese culture and language. Even so, his dream in life is to move to Canada, so we'll let that happen some day too.
As a country, we're really in such a strong position to approach China at a different level of engagement. I have great respect for the U.S. economy and the U.S. system, but in many respects we're on the rise in terms of our relationship with China. Whereas China is, in many cases, looking down on the U.S. in terms of the relationship.
This interview has been edited and condensed.