Chengwei Chen

Global Sourcing Manager, Stiebel Eltron GmbH & Co. KG

You have a technical background in the industrial sector. What was the job at Strategy& in Shanghai like? Was the job culture different from the jobs you had had before?
At Strategy& I was part of a team of engineers and it was a very exciting and memorable experience for me, which is why I stayed there for nearly six years. The culture at Management Engineers was certainly different. The advantage of being part of an international network was that we could get all kinds of resources from our colleagues in Germany, the U.S., and the U.K.

Did you spend a lot of time in Germany as well?
Yes, depending on the project I worked on, I also spent some time in Germany in those days. This made it possible for me to get to know a lot of my colleagues on a personal level, for example, when I took part in training programs in Germany. Knowing my German team members personally helped me to establish close working relations with them. To give you an example: When I was a project leader in China for one automotive OEM, I got to know Christian Foltz, who was the project manager for the entire project, and I still keep in touch with him today. I also stay in contact with Henning Rennert and Hartmut Güthner.

Did any of your former colleagues help advance your career or develop your skills in any way?
Yes, definitely. My former colleagues Gerd Möhrke and Gerhard Nowak helped me get a better understanding of all the individual processes of the project we worked on and gave me the [chance to do] project management. I had a background in supply chain management and purchasing. Thanks to the two managing directors, I also learned a lot about production, quality management, research and development, and other things. From these projects, I made the transition from consulting to project management. As a consultant, I put most attention on “how to finish the task on time,” while as a project manager, I put more attention on communication internally and externally, process control, customer satisfaction, and successful consequences of the project.

I had the opportunities to lead different projects, which I realized together with Gerhard. Even now, I receive inquiries from managers who ask me to [lead] projects for them, and I forward their inquiries to Gerhard! Just kidding.

Looking back at your time at Strategy&, are there any memories or stories you would like to share with us?
I remember a cost management project which was quite a challenge, but which also helped us learn a lot about how to deal with clients — right from the start we ran into all sorts of problems. From the very beginning we had to justify our work to the client, who wanted to know all sorts of things from us: “Why do you use this material? Why this equipment? Why this machinery?” We always tried to fully answer all questions, but at first our client didn’t trust our decisions and our expertise at all. The experience I want to share here with you is that leading projects is in fact not that difficult. The real difficulty lies in convincing clients to work together with you as a team. I try to understand the perspective of my clients as best I can, and once they realize that their results are improving, I can bring them over to my side more easily and work with them more effectively. And in my experience, clients are interested in long-term and trust-based work relationships with their consultants.

Another learning I would like to share with you is that whenever you start a new project, it makes a lot of sense to ask yourself three important questions: What should be done? Why should it be done? What are the potential benefits of the project? These easy questions help you structure your tasks and get off to a good start in the crucial early stage of a project. It is also very important to always put oneself in other people’s shoes and see their perspective. This makes it much easier to take the needs of your client and of your client’s business partners fully into account.

After a couple of years at Strategy&, you switched back to the industry sector. What was the reason for your decision to go back?
Well, there were two reasons for my decision. Firstly, I wanted to spend more time with my family. When I was a consultant there were periods when I saw my wife on just one weekend in three months. This was fine for a while, but after several years in consulting we both wanted a change. Secondly, there were professional reasons. If you want to put your expertise into practice, and experience your ideas firsthand, you need to work in the industry. Otherwise, you will never get a chance to realize your own concepts for new production or work processes.

You have been having a great career both in China and in Germany. What were the skills and characteristics that made your career possible?
Well, I see myself as some sort of a “bridge” between my Chinese, German, and U.S. colleagues. I interpret the wishes and needs of, for example, local Chinese clients to our international partners. Additionally, I would say that I am generally very good at analyzing and structuring problems. These skills have certainly helped me detect and deal with problems quickly.

You now work as a global sourcing manager in Germany. How would you say sourcing has changed in recent years, for example, due to digitization?
From 2006 until 2008, I was with Continental in China, where I worked primarily in logistics. Back then, my job entailed comparing different suppliers and negotiating with them. When we made these comparisons, we conducted some basic calculations. Today, however, we use all sorts of parameters for our analyses. Digitization helps us vastly expand our analysis processes and provides us with a comprehensive picture of the costs that will be incurred. It enables us to manage prices, check customer clearances, or calculate required storage areas, for example. In addition, there are more factors that are taken into account today — not only cost factors but also quality issues. Yes, a supplier from China may be cheaper, but what if quality standards are not met? A cheaper supplier may end up being more costly than a more expensive one. Sourcing has…become more complex, but also much more professional.

Would you say digital technology and data analysis have made sourcing easier or more difficult? What are the most important challenges you are facing in your job?
I think that for some managers, it is quite hard to embrace this new digital age. So, I really think a lot depends on one’s personality and preferences. Some clients prefer to have a comprehensive picture of their company’s total cost of ownership, and this is where digital technology definitely helps.

In terms of the challenges in my job, I have the feeling that the communication and coordination processes between Chinese and European businesses ought to be faster sometimes. European companies sometimes take too much time to react to Chinese suppliers, because they feel they need to validate all data and information from China. I agree that information needs to be accurate, but nonetheless it is important to speed up these processes. Digital technology, by the way, is a factor that certainly helps improve these processes: at work, we gather all the relevant information in a standardized digital format and share it with our partners, which has facilitated the coordination with businesses partners substantially.

A more personal question: What is your situation in Germany like? Have you and your family managed to settle in?
My life is very good now. My entire family lives here in Germany with me. My second son was born here last Christmas and we are very happy. I’m very grateful for this change in my life and for the fact that we can all be here together. My wife is still learning German, which will certainly take some more time. [He laughs.] But we are very content with our lives here.

And what do you do in your spare time?
In my job I lead a very active life and spend a lot of time on the road, which is why I enjoy being inactive at home in my spare time. However, I also like to go on vacation with my family. We have, for example, traveled to Japan, Korea, Australia, the Netherlands, and other places. In China, there is a saying that traveling for one mile is equivalent to reading 1,000 books — which is why I take my family abroad, so they can also experience other countries and cultures.

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