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Michael L. Ducker '99, delivers a keynote speech at the April 19 Greater China Business Conference. Ducker is president of FedEx Express, international division.

‘Not in Kansas anymore,’ say experts at China business conference

Kellogg event convenes students, practitioners and academics to explore opportunities and barriers associated with achieving ‘global dreams’

By Teresa Sewell

4/23/2008 - Showcasing some of the challenges that China’s growing market may present for future business leaders, the Kellogg School’s 2008 Greater China Business Conference on April 19 brought together faculty, students and alumni with executives who shared their own hands-on experiences in building companies throughout that nation.

The daylong student-led conference, held at the James L. Allen Center, featured keynote speakers, interactive panel discussions and networking opportunities. Participants explored the theme of “One World: Removing Barriers to Achieve Global Dreams.”

“The idea of one world across countries and cultures is becoming a closer reality,” said Yen Chun Lin ’08, executive chair for the conference. “This is particularly pertinent as an increasing number of global companies are entering China, and as Chinese companies are going global.” Still, Chun Lin said, challenges remain, particularly those related to the legal, economic and cultural hurdles — considerations on the minds of many experts at the Kellogg event.

Delivering the initial keynote address was Michael Ducker ’99, president of the FedEx Express international division. The Kellogg School graduate manages operations for the company’s four regions – including its U.S. export business and express freight services.

“It’s no secret that China is transforming the global economy,” Ducker said. He noted that China’s “rapidly growing middle class” and its government’s shift to encourage consumer spending brings the country closer to becoming the third-largest consumer market by 2025, as some predict.

While Asian entrepreneurs may have difficulties in adapting to their new environment, Ducker believed that business students were lucky to study and face the challenges associated with emerging markets. He pointed out that mobile phone giant Nokia changed the world through text messaging, and he invited those in attendance to imagine the game-changing innovations that China is likely to produce in coming years.

“Everything we encounter seems closer, faster or more accessible than it ever has been in the history of the world,” Ducker told the audience, which included many Kellogg MBA students. “I’m really almost envious of the fact that you’re so young and on the leading edge of what’s going to be one of the most exciting times in human history.”

The conference attracted an audience from Northwestern University and beyond. Jie Bai, a student at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, for instance, came to Evanston for the event to gain insight from experts who have taken classroom lessons and applied them within China’s complex business market.

“I wanted to learn more about the economy and the views of these kinds of people,” Bai said, adding that such exchanges are likely to encourage more Americans to invest in China.

Stephanie Chang ’08, logistics co-chair for the conference, said planning and booking speakers for the event was difficult while also managing her academic responsibilities. Nevertheless, she found the experiential learning opportunities associated with running the conference valuable, and also said it was rewarding to hear so many experts voice their ideas about doing business in China.

“It always helps to talk to people who’ve actually been there and done that,” Chang said. “This conference is just one of the forums to bring information to Kellogg students.”

Conference attendees also heard a keynote speech from Huagang Zhang, president of Gemdale Corp. His company is one of China’s top real estate ventures with a 40 percent annual growth rate. In addition to achieving $1.5 billion in revenues and $134 million in profits during 2007, Gemdale is developing 35 projects in 14 Chinese cities. “China’s real estate record is quite healthy,” Zhang said.

While Zhang said he never doubts the potential of China as a whole, he noted that "the competition is fierce" and that the biggest challenge is keeping up with daily changes in the market. He said Gemdale seeks to expand its business to be a valuable model for the country.

Zhang added that as his company grows more sophisticated, China's potential to become a leading market is something everyone can recognize.
"You can feel it," he said, "and share the real story."

With such booming track records, panelist Richard Wottrich said China is the place to be. Wottrich is president of DSI Global M & A and has over 30 years experience in the financial services industry.

“If I were 25, I’d be in China starting a company,” said Wottrich, who participated in a discussion on investment and new ventures in China, one of five conference panels.

And to be successful in that company, an afternoon panel offered a couple of key strategies: learn Chinese, connect with locals to find a helpful and trustworthy business partner and be the fastest in the business.

Robert Collins ’99, founder of Doing China Business LLC and author of a book on conducting business in Asia, advised studying China’s “Five-Year Plan” to understand how the country’s leaders are looking to boost their industries to become one of the most powerful nation’s in the world. He also advised attendees not to be intimidated by the novel experience of working in China, but to do their research and be prepared for anything.

That insight echoed a point that Ducker made too. With an allusion to the “Wizard of Oz,” the keynote speaker said, “When you land, you won’t be in Kansas anymore.”