I think I can safely speak for everyone when I say that Taiwan has been an absolutely amazing experience for us all. We left USC with our freshman year of college under our belts, but still very much fledgling business students just beginning to learn about the world we were attempting to join.
Once we arrived in Taiwan, we began company visits at a frenetic pace, traveling all over the country to meet with CEOs and PR representatives, getting an invaluable inside look into how successful (and not so successful) business ventures operate overseas.
There will be more in depth thoughts about our company visits after the break, but in summary, I felt like this trip really opened our eyes to the different business philosophies of the Eastern world, compared to the business ways of America that we have grown accustomed to.
For one, it was clear that almost all of the companies we visited had a strong sense of pride in their products, and producing things their own way. They like to rest on accolades instead of outright advertise and “brag” and enforce company cultures that are very focused on things like honor and respect.
Beyond the companies though, all of the people that we met were not only extremely knowledgeable, but also humble and very nice to us. In America, foreigners are not always treated well and we had all come to know the warnings of how America was viewed by the rest of the world, so it was a bit of a pleasant surprise. Nobody was above talking to college students and answering our questions, from the people at the front desk, to CEOs of these multi-million dollar corporations. They also took care to make sure we stayed on schedule in the grand scheme of our daily itinerary, respecting our time and even making outside arrangements so that we could stay on track, ordering us food to go etc.
Warning: pretty dense text after the page break
American Institute in Taiwan (AiT)
The first “company” visit we had in Taiwan was at AiT located at the Taipei World Trade Center, which acts as the United States’ unofficial embassy in Taiwan (since Taiwan is not officially recognized as a country). Initially, I didn’t take this visit too seriously since it just discussed many of the economic and political issues that Taiwan is dealing with currently— all information we had gone over repeatedly both in LINC classes during the semester, and during our individual research sessions. It was, however, very interesting to meet the people working at AiT, and get information on their rigorous journeys on getting to work at an “embassy.”
I would also end up to be very very wrong about the importance of the information we received at AiT. In fact, it’d be this very information that tied in with the business operations of our last company visit of Taiwan, CP Logistics Inc.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. At the time, I believe my major takeaway from this visit was the catchphrase:
“We look like a duck, we talk like a duck, but we’re not ducks.”
in regard to AiT’s embassy status.
Here is a picture of Professor Wolfe and some of our LINC class exiting the building:
ASUSTeK Computer Inc. (ASUS)
Immediately after we left AiT, we headed to ASUS, the Taiwanese based computer manufacturing giant— our first “real” company visit of the trip.
ASUS gave us a very warm welcome and led us to their presentation room, where several PR representatives gave us an over view of their company, before showing us some of their intricate and high tech products. All of the PR representatives seemed to be more or less fluent in English, which was quite impressive, considering only a handful of our class knew any Chinese at all, much less speak it fluently. It also delayed the culture shock of language until future company visits. Although very few of us had heard of ASUS back in the States, and even fewer of us owned ASUS products, ASUS has a very large market share in Asia, and a downright dominant marketshare in Taiwan.
Among the products we were shown was a product that ASUS had not yet launched in America: the Padfone, Padfone 2, and Padfone Infinity. These probably impressed us the most, as it featured an integrated docking system that allowed the phone and tablet to seamlessly function in combination. The PR representatives also led us to their show room, where we were able to have a hands on experience with many of their products, while also having multiple representatives nearby to talk to and ask questions.
Although flaws with certain products were eventually realized during the Q & A session (price points, the Padfone tablet doesn’t function without the presence of the phone etc.), our visit to ASUS was more about the glimpse into their company culture. It was very much a prideful institution that focused on innovation and staying ahead of the pack, while not boasting of its accomplishments through elaborate ad campaigns. ASUS was happy simply resting on the laurels of their accomplishments, and many innovation awards they had accumulated over the years. The setting of the company was very much like Google, where employees were given free meals at the cafeteria, and had the luxuries of a gym and rooftop pool, along with this amazing view:
Despite being skeptical about the products they showed/advertised to us, we were all very impressed with the company itself and how it was run, as well as the benefits that ASUS offered its employees. It emulated the luxuries of a top “Western” corporation, while still maintaining its more humble “Eastern” company philosophies.
Here is a picture of the ASUS sign as we were leaving. My friend Kenneth insisted on joining the picture:
HoCheng Group (HCG)
ASUS was definitely interesting, but their showroom, briefing room, and facilities were all heavily reminiscent of the companies that are so prevalent on the West Coast, especially in LA and from where I came from, the Bay Area/Silicon Valley.
HCG was something else— our first experience of a “different” company. HCG was extremely friendly towards us, welcoming us with a parade of people, ushering us towards refreshments that they had provided. They had a very modern showroom and demonstration area, where they showed us their higher end products, as well as innovations they have made to make their washbasins, toilets, etc. much more safer to use. But it was the tour of their factories that really made an impact on me.
At first, I thought the HCG setup with the administrative building so close to all of its factories was very “The Office” esque, but after touring them, they were anything but.
In America, we expect factories to have minimum safety requirements, and essentially be tedious and mind-numbing work but at least in workable conditions. Unfortunately, since HCG works with ceramics in most of their products, their factories had to be kept at a certain temperature, so AC units were out of the question. The factories themselves were hot and humid, much like Taiwan, but magnified with the intense smell of chemicals mixing with ceramic products. It was hard to imagine staying in such a place for more than an hour, but for many of the factory employees, this was their livelihoods. Although HCG’s factories were probably the worst conditions to work in out of all the factories we toured, it was sobering and humbling to really see for ourselves where a lot of products that we take for granted get made, and how much literal sacrifice goes into things.
It also makes the thought of true sweatshop work even more deplorable.
Snapshots of the factories:
Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI)
Our next company visit was ITRI, which is a nonprofit company that deals primarily with innovation and invention, without worrying about marketing or production.
ITRI was most interesting because of its business model, where all of its revenue is used as budget, and its revenue is composed of 50% commissions from companies and donations, and 50% government funding. ITRI is very comparable to America’s own Silicon Valley, and the gadgets they showed us were very practical and impressive. There was paper that also functioned as top-line speakers, hose nozzles for firefighters that also doubled as a generator for LED lights, robotic arms that could calculate trajectories instantly and make alot of basketball hoops etc.
No photos allowed here though…sorry! Definitely a very interesting organization and a place a lot of my classmates agreed they’d like to work at.
Ritek is one of the world’s leaders in electronic storage and began their ascent in the business world on the back of their CD and DVD production. The most interesting part about this company was their change in mindset as global consumption habits shifted away from physical storage and went more towards USBs and now, Cloud storage.
Here is a picture of their CD/DVD production factory. It was highly mechanized, a contrast from HCG, which required alot of manual labor and attention. This was very clean, and very precise.
Obviously, the shift of global preference away from their primary product cut into their profit margins and as their CEO told us, Ritek had a few shaky years. However, Ritek diversified their products and actually broke itself into several “sub-companies” that all specialized in different parts of the storage market, and other markets that are tangentially related. The CEO of Ritek also stressed to us the importance of timing for most non massive conglomerate companies, and the change of their company motto from Leading Innovation, to “Right people, right product, right time.”
Giant was a bit of a departure from the Taiwanese style of companies that we were adjusting to. Giant sells all sorts of bicycles, from very cheap low-end bikes to top of the line, carbon fiber high performance bikes— typically what we consider a very niche market in the United States, where cars dominate the streets.
In Asian countries, biking takes more of a precedent, but most people still either walk, drive, or ride mopeds to get around. Because of this, however, Giant’s mindset was not simply to set out and sell their products, but to sell a ‘way of life” or sell to the public their own company culture. A quote from their CEO and founder really stuck with me: “Walking is too slow, driving is too fast. Riding is the perfect speed to enjoy life.” And its a quote that the entire company believes in, having all of their top executives from all around the country come together and ride across Taiwan to demonstrate their love of riding and their love for their product. Giant wasn’t just selling their products and hoping people bought into their lifestyle though. In (what I regarded as) one innovative marketing move, Giant partnered with the city of Taipei to set up several “rent a bike” stations that citizens could easily access and use to get around. This allows them to introduce their products to consumers without paying for advertising, as well as develop a biking infrastructure to promote the sales of their product— all on government dime. Not bad at all!
Unfortunately, this was one of our last company visits of the particular day and I was extremely drained so I didn’t take many photos. The high end bikes were amazing though, and after their presentation I kind of wanted to buy one of their bikes for myself.
Japin helped reaffirm the importance of family when it came to business in Taiwan. Other companies also alluded to this and you could definitely see hints of family in company structures if you looked in the right places, but the CEO of Japin shared with us some important insight on carrying on the family business, remaining true to family ideals while still maintaining profits, and how to juggle family with work when family and work often merge into one and the same. She talked of the conflicts that she and her brother have over the direction of Japin, as well as how her entire life was essentially interwoven with Japin.
Once she told us her story, I began to realize just how prevalent family owned businesses are in Taiwan. From the smallest stalls at the night market, to corporations as big as KYMCO and RITEK, Taiwanese companies try to keep business within the family.
Here is a picture of me trying to assemble one of Japin’s water filters after being shown how by one of the factory managers.
KYMCO headquarters was located in KaoHsiung, which was on the complete opposite side of Taiwan. To get there, we had to wake up before 6AM and board a high speed train. Needless to say, very few of us remember anything about that morning ride…
But once we got to KaoHsiung and KYMCO, everyone more or less was well rested. KYMCO was interesting because it is a big producer of a vehicle that is very rarely seen in American markets, but is hugely popular in Asia and parts of Europe: the moped. KYMCO’s factories were a perfect balance between HCG and Giant’s— each individual part/gear was carefully hand made. There were very few comprehensive machines; the factory was made up mostly of smaller machines that helped the workers complete the task, rather than a bunch of machines working and workers supervising.
We also ate lunch with some KYMCO executives— once the language barrier was overcome, it was extremely cool to get their insight on all sorts of things. The guys were also crazy considerate. One of my friends left his iPhone at the restaurant where we ate and didn’t realize until hours later. Once KYMCO found out, their CFO personally went to retrieve the phone and drove out to our high speed train station to meet us before we headed back to Taipei. Considerate, humble… you name it.
Here is Tony, KYMCO’s manager for factory safety with Peter, the man who lost his phone.
Our last company visit in Taiwan was perhaps the most unique of them all. Every company we had previously visited was more or less successful, with a big market share and constant meeting of their goals.
CP Logistics, however, is the story of an ambitious man named John Cheng, who wagered 60 million U.S. dollars on the passage of a political treaty between Taiwan and China 20 years ago. His vision was to build a logistics company at the port of KaoHsiung with a massive automated sorting/docking/storage system that would essentially be able to function 24/7 while Taiwan became a hub of global trade under this agreement.
The political instability between Taiwan and China that I mentioned earlier in this post would come back to bite him, however, as the treaty that he was waiting for for almost 20 years only just recently came to pass in 2011. By 2011, his automated warehouse was lacking in business, and the building he dreamed of was largely empty warehouse after empty warehouse.
This visit made me realize just how risky and fickle business was, that even the surest of things could go wrong. John Cheng’s vision 20 years ago was revolutionary, and he had every single aspect of his plan checked out. He even had government word that the treaty was about to pass, covering his last tracks. Had the treaty passed, his company would have become a huge success and been hugely profitable. Instead, today he is left with a massive building that he rents out to small events, and an unused automated warehouse system. Where he once dreamed of huge profits, a much older John Cheng had to overcome his failures and today he only dreams of paying back the 40 million dollars he owes, and clearing his family’s name of debt. I also found it extremely admirable that John Cheng was able to smile and laugh about his huge failure with visitors, and still holds out hope that someday his company will meet his original expectations. He told Professor Wolfe as we left CP Logistics: “I hope next year when you guys come I will not be able to show you my automated warehouse (as it will be fully operational and not possible to step inside of)”
Here is a picture of John Cheng’s completely automated warehouse and essentially the biggest/most costly dream and ambition of his life:
And that was all of our company visits on this trip. We also visited places like Children R Us, and National Taiwan University for a Case Competition with Febico Inc. but I’ll probably cover that in a separate post.
In hindsight, there probably was a way better way to organize this rather than doing it company by company and creating this massive behemoth of a post.
If you do happen to read this far, thanks for your time and I hope you didn’t find it too wasted reading my post.
Special thanks to my co-blogger Brendan for a couple of the photos in this post. He was much more diligent with his photography than I was.
One more post to come!