In his second year based out of Beijing with DuPont Pioneer, Will Broer offers a valuable case study into the experience of bilingual foreigners working to support the business operations of multinationals in China. Learn how he developed his portfolio to create a productive role within the company based around his expertise and interests:
Could you briefly introduce your work and your company?
I work for a company called DuPont Pioneer. DuPont is a well-known multinational science company in the agricultural space. We are a world leading supplier of advanced plant genetics to farmers worldwide. In China we sell hybrid corn seed to about seven to eight million farmers. So specifically I work as a strategic marketing specialist focused primarily on channel management.
How did you get involved in the first place? Did you start in China? Did you get sent over?
I actually started in the U.S. After graduating from college, I spent some time in China in Nanjing in a State Department language program. After training in the U.S., I was put in touch with DuPont Pioneer’s country manager for China. At the time, there had just been a management change and he had come in as an American country manager to replace a previous Chinese country manager and was looking for Americans who could speak Chinese. So at the time, I could speak Chinese and the rest is history.
What have you been working on?
I’ve been primarily working on a variety of interdepartmental projects, cross-functional projects, focusing on various management priorities. I started off in our intellectual property protection team, focusing on some of the unique IP protection challenges we face in China. I then moved briefly to our GA team and then to our marketing team to focus on our channel expansion priorities. Most recently, I’m working on channel management to better design our incentives for our distributors across China.
How does this diverse portfolio come together? Did they know they were going to use you in these ways coming in or has it just been as needed?
Initially, the company knew they wanted to focus me on this intellectual property protection project. But the projects I’ve been assigned to since have been very flexible and really focused on priorities that have come up, places where the company has seen a need for a cross-functional approach and a focus that might be more flexible than somebody from the marketing department or somebody from the legal department or from the production team, somebody who can sort of talk to everybody from the U.S. headquarters all the way down to a local sales rep in Guangzhou or Linxia or Hangzhou.
Tell me more about the geographic component of the work you’ve been doing. I know you’re based in Beijing.
I’m based in Beijing but as a hybrid corn seed company, there’s not much corn grown in Beijing, not much corn in the CBD… Maybe 10, 15 years ago. So our main markets are in Heilongjiang, Jilin, Nanning, Hunan, Shandong, Shanxi. I spend almost half my time in the market talking to our distributors, talking to our sales teams.
Who had the vision to use you in this way? Did you say “Send me out there. I can take care of this?” Did your boss suggest that you provide some international perspective on the ground?
For the original assignment bringing me into the company, it was really our China country manager at the time who had the vision for where I could add value. I had some things that I could offer and was very eager and ready to go. But the initial shape of the assignment was very much his vision. From there, once I got into the organization and learned about what was going on and what the work people were doing, then I could set some direction for myself, come up with proposals – this is where we need to focus, this is where I could add value – and I’ve had a lot of success actually sort of driving the direction of my work.
Where do you see this going next in terms of your own career development? Is there a clear next step for you at DuPont? What’s the career track or is there a track?
It’s interesting you asked that because there’s not necessarily really a clear career track for somebody like me who’s a half-pat in China. The nice thing about DuPont Pioneer in China is that really although we’re a massive global company, our China operation is very much a startup within that larger organization. So there’s not necessarily set in stone career paths. It’s that if you’re able to do the work, the work finds you. It’s a much more flexible sort of structure.
Hopefully I would be continuing to be focused on these cross-functional projects and then you go from maybe a project specialist to a project manager and then from there, who knows. I’m very much focused on developing myself within the company, maybe looking at a potential MBA down the line.
Is there anything that you wish somebody had told you going in that you might be able to share with people who are starting out now?
Something that I wish somebody had told me before I started is that don’t be afraid to make observations and recommendations. I think at the beginning of my assignment, I came in and maybe a lot of things seemed odd to me or that they could have been done better. But maybe at the time I assumed that there was a reason why things were being done the way they were.
Only maybe a year or two later, when I actually got a better idea of what was going on, I realized that, well, actually those might have been the problems that we’re trying to solve in the first place.
The second thing that I wish somebody had gotten to me early on is don’t drink the baijiu, if you can avoid it. At any cost, don’t drink the baijiu. It’s not worth it.
How would you advise people in your position, bilingual Westerners coming into China and looking to develop their careers?
The people that I’ve seen who have been successful in finding these kinds of positions have joined two things: It’s that they have good Chinese ability and they have some kind of a niche. Whether that’s a connection with agriculture or a connection with a specific organization or industry that doesn’t necessarily have a wealth of people who are bilingual who can speak Mandarin. Just have good Chinese and then a connection to a specific niche.
We are fortunate to have Will’s model and insights to draw from in figuring out how to create more inventive roles in which international professionals can create value for companies in China. ATLAS is always happy to hear from people keen to apply their skills in China in new and creative ways – please contact us!
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