Hao Guan (M.87)
A bridge between China and France
Shanghai. Hao is a pioneer. He was 18 when he was sent to France by the Chinese government, in the late 1970s. Even if he couldn’t speak a word of French, he learnt very fast, went through “Maths Spé” preparatory classes and integrated la Grande École des Ponts et Chaussées only 30 months later. He did an MBA at HEC, is very proud of being part of HEC’s alumni network and he has been the president of the HEC Alumni Shanghai chapter for 10 years.
Read full transcript…
HU: Hi Hao, Thank you for inviting us to your place for this interview. Let’s start with our little Chinese portrait! So, if you were… a color?
H: Blue. It’s a color you don’t see much in China, because of the pollution, and it has become a luxury. Blue is also the color of my company, VSL (a Bouygues Construction subsidiary).
HU: An animal?
H: An eagle, because an eagle has the ability to see things from an very high point of view. It is a very beautiful and strong animal.
HU: A meal?
H: There is an interesting meal to tell, even if it’s not the one I like the most: the monk’s meal. In China, the monks in the Buddhist temples are vegetarian. However, they are all human beings and they sometimes dream to eat some meat, so they create something called the “vegetarian chicken”, which is made of tofu, but in the form of chicken! That way they can believe they are eating chicken. It’s very popular in China.
HU: A song?
H: The first song that comes to my mind is the one we are rehearsing now. We will sing to Dean Todd, when he will come to China in April. It’s an Italian song called “Bella Ciao” (he starts singing). It’s a very lovely song talking about love, and we all love HEC.
Out of that, I am huge fan of Phil Collins and Dire Straits.
HU: If you were a movie?
H: Avatar, because I think that entertaining is is what makes a movie good and Avatar is very entertaining with its 3D special effects. It brings you to imagine a fantastic world, which turns to be real: they took many images from a Chinese place you should visit!
HU: A sin?
H: I am not Christian so I will not confess here. I have many but I will keep them for me!
HU: An object?
H: The air, or the clean air. It’s not a real object but it’s very difficult to have some in China. You cannot buy it, but this is something we need to focus on.
HU: A sport or a game?
H: I practice tennis regularly.
“For 25 years I have been an expatriate in my own country!”
HU: If you were a book?
H: It’s also a difficult question, but I will talk about the book I am considering to write myself. I don’t know when, but I will and this book will tell the story of my early years in Paris. I landed Paris in the late 1970s. I was belonging to the first generation of Chinese students sent to France. It was a total different time for me of course, but also for France. This will be the principal line of the story and the secondary line will be about French “patisserie” (i.e pastry), so that the Chinese reader can appreciate the beauty of this art I discovered in France.
I want to write this book for myself. Everyone can write his book, because everyone has fought in his life. I don’t want to write a book like I am Napoleon or Charles de Gaulle! I never tried so this is just a new challenge for me and it’s fun!
HU: What is your favorite French pastry?
H: Almost everything, but I loved the “éclair au café” very much.
HU: if you were a (super)hero?
H: Roger Federer. As I told you I love tennis and to me he is “sacré”, like a superhero. The values Federer stands for are: a good technique, a great sportsmanship, elegance and longevity. These are great values to pick up.
HU: Now, can you try to sum your professional background in just 30 seconds?
H: I am an engineer. I graduated from École des Ponts et Chaussées in France and I did an MBA at HEC right after. I am working for a French company, Bouygues not to name it, more precisely for VSL, one of Bouygues Construction’s subsidiary. I am the General Director of VSL and Bouygues Construction in China. We are developing infrastructures in China and we are leaders for the construction of nuclear plants, large bridges or liquefied natural gas storage and other industrial facilities.
I also spend lot of my time working for the HEC community. I have been the Shanghai chapter’s president for 10 years so I spend lot of my free time working for the network and for the school. There is a lot of pressure coming from Paris, as well as solicitations, but it’s my honor to do it.
“Just after my MBA at HEC, I wanted to be a strategy consultant. I successfully passed 10 rounds of interviews in an American strategy consulting firm. The last one was with the HR director, who explained to me that they could not hire me because of my Chinese passport.”
HU: Have you spent your entire career at Bouygues?
H: Almost. For 25 years I have been an expatriate in my own country! (laughs)
HU: Why are you happy to go to work every morning?
H: What VSL and Bouygues are achieving in China will last for more than 100 years, which gives you a feeling of being kind of immortal! And you also have a deep sense of responsibility. I really like my job, I find it exceptional.
HU: How many people are working for Bouygues in China?
H: About 300, including one factory located 500 km from here. We have around 10 active projects all around the country.
HU: What are your usual tasks at work? How is your working time split?
H: I plan my time by week, sometimes month. A typical week would be a meeting with my boss in Hong Kong on Monday, because if I cover all mainland China, our headquarters are located in Hong Kong. The rest of the week I usually fly to another city, Shanghai or Beijing to meet clients, consultants or colleagues, or to visit job sites.
“Over the past 30 years, China has become a global player and many non-Chinese economies, the US, Europe, Thailand and many more benefit from China’s development!”
HU: What is Bouygues doing in China? What are the projects you are working on?
H: We are involved in the very dynamic Chinese infrastructure market. China still needs lots of power stations, gas stations or bridges and the country is also opening to foreign technology and experience in order to catch up.
Bouygues provides tailored solutions for almost all these kind of projects. As a result, we can be involved in various steps of the process, from the design to the entire construction process, including the manufacturing of components and after-sale services.
We call ourselves as a “specialist contractor”.
HU: What does it mean?
H: It means that we provide a technical or managerial solution for Chinese construction projects. China never hesitates to get the best technology in the world: instead of reinventing the wheel, they acquire it! Bouygues has many competences for the construction of airports, bridges or nuclear power stations that are necessary for China.
HU: Have you coped with a difficult choice in your professional life? If yes, what did you learn?
H: Just after my MBA at HEC, I wanted to be a strategy consultant. I successfully passed 10 rounds of interviews in an American strategy consulting firm. The last one was with the HR director, who explained to me that they could not hire me because of my Chinese passport. I was quite disappointed.
My entire life would have been very different if I had entered this company. The lesson of this, which is still valid today, is that it’s very difficult for Chinese or Asians to target top jobs in the Western world, even if they have the best qualifications.
HU: So you think that it is still true…
H: I hope I am wrong but I think that I am not, to be honest.
HU: Let’s talk a bit more about Shanghai now. Where do you hang out on Sunday afternoons?
H: I will answer to your question as a resident, not as a tourist! So on a Sunday, I like to escape this huge city to go to the nearby country. You have many rural villages 50 km away from Shanghai, called the “Water Villages”, like Zhujiajiao, which is a very traditional and vivid one, only 30 minutes away by car. The contrast with Shanghai is very striking.
HU: But still, imagine you only have 24 hours left to live in Shanghai, what would you do?
H: I would like to see my friends and make a walk in the French Concession, because it is to me the most beautiful area of Shanghai and it reminds me a lot of things from my life in France. I see all the people like me enjoying the French lifestyle, but also the Chinese one, because it’s a blended culture. I see myself in this world.
“I was one of the first Chinese students to go to France.”
HU: What do you like with the people from Shanghai?
H: People from Shanghai are famous for their hard working personality. Although its population only represents a very small portion of the Chinese population, Shanghai represents a huge part of the Chinese GDP. They are also very open-minded people, thanks to History: they know how to master Western values but they remain very traditional.
HU: What is China’s main challenge in your opinion?
H: It would take us an hour to cover this topic! (laughs)
There are many huge challenges but I trust the government to handle the situation. Thanks to the past 30 years during which they have learnt a lot, I think our political leaders are way more experienced. They now know how to address our massive population and to benefit from our huge financial, human and natural resources. China is now very influential and I think the chances for Chinese people to succeed are way higher than 30 years ago, when I was young.
HU: We hear today that China is slowing down, and that the transition from an exportation-based growth model to a consumption-based model is tougher than expected. The Western countries seem to be happy with this slowdown and we sometimes have the feeling, that in Europe and the in US, people are happy to see that Chinese weaknesses and maybe secretly hope that China will collapse.
On the other hand, the Chinese people we have met so far are confident, like you, and what we saw here makes us confident too, actually!
How can you explain these differences between the Western conception of China and the Chinese conception of China? Is it fear or jealousy from the West? Overconfidence from China?
H: I know the French very well and I understood your question. I don’t understand why the Western world is so concerned about China, which is seen as a threat. Over the past 30 years, China has become a global player and many non-Chinese economies, the US, Europe, Thailand and many more benefit from China’s development! It would be a disaster if China collapsed! China can do much better and China should think about China first. Like all countries.
The current slowdown is bad news for China but the government will do its best to change that. The Congress is currently gathered in Beijing and they targeted an annual growth rate between 6.5% and 6.7% for the next years.
Like everyone knows, China is moving from the labour-intensive world factory it used to be, to the high technology added value economy it wants to be. South Korea, Japan and Taiwan are good examples for us.
“As a Chinese student, you cannot afford going to the restaurant and the “cantine” was a kind of luxury for me. The food wasn’t excellent, but the feeling was great!”
HU: Let’s talk about HEC now. But before that, how did you come to France in the first place?
H: I was very young when China was opening to the rest of the world and started sending students overseas. I was one of the first Chinese students to go to France. I was granted a French scholarship to study French in Bordeaux during 6 months, because I had never studied French before. Then I entered preparatory classes “Maths Spé” in Lycée du Parc from Lyon. After the “concours”, I entered “l’École des Ponts et Chaussées”. My dream was Polytechnique and I only realize later that “École des ponts et Chaussées” was good too.
HU: So 2 years and a half before that, you couldn’t speak French at all?
H: Yes, that’s right. Mais je me suis rattrapé depuis! (laughs)
HU: You did your MBA just after l’École des Ponts et Chaussées. Why did you choose HEC?
H: I was considering pursuing my education in the management and business fields. I applied to HEC, INSEAD and ESSEC. A French company sponsored my MBA and advised me to go to HEC. To me, HEC was more representative of the French values than the others. So I went to HEC!
HU: What was your favorite place in HEC?
H: Maybe the “cantine” (i.e. the self)! As a Chinese student, you cannot afford going to the restaurant and the “cantine” was a kind of luxury for me. The food wasn’t excellent, but the feeling was great! (laughs)
HU: What is your best memory from HEC?
H: I was trying to get my driving licence and the campus was the perfect place to train! I bought a very cheap car from a friend in the very beginning of the program and I started to drive before passing the exam! I know the campus very well for this reason and I enjoyed those “training sessions”.
“Maybe HEC is no. 1 in France but there are so many famous brands… HEC won’t get you everywhere very easily, so you will have to be very tough”
HU: Did you kill anyone?
H: Apparently no! I had to drive early in the morning, before the lessons, and there was nobody on the road! (laughs)
HU: Would you advise someone to do an MBA at HEC today? Why?
H: Definitely. It can be an MBA, an EMBA – we have an EMBA program running in China – or Grande École: all programs are good. To me, recommending someone to go to HEC is like offering a present, and a beautiful one, because it is a lifetime present.
HU: Why is this gift so valuable?
H: I think HEC is a great package. First, an excellent education that makes you both an entrepreneur and a skilful analyst. You also develop great language and communication skills. Finally, you can benefit from the HEC brand.
HU: Is HEC a good brand in China?
H: Not yet, but it’s the purpose of Peter Todd’ visit in April 2016. We are progressing, but it’s too slow…
HU: How could HEC get better in China?
H: It’s all about strategy, investment and implementation.
First, HEC should define its strategy, that I cannot really explain for the moment to be honest. Then, the investment has to follow this investment. American business schools have invested huge amounts of money in China. Last but not least is implementation. I think this is France’s weakness: we are very good at planning and imagining projects, but not at implementing them.
HU: Why did you get involved in the HEC Alumni association?
H: I have been very lucky in my life and I want to give back to HEC. It has been 10 years since I became the Shanghai chapter’s president but I didn’t see them go by. I have the feeling that I can really help HEC thanks to my experience. I organize a lot of events, we invite Chinese people, I communicate on HEC Paris in China to make them know better what HEC is.
HU: For which reasons would you like to be contacted by an HEC alumnus?
H: As a chapter president, I can give some help to any alumnus coming to Shanghai. We have more than 600 members here, in all fields: CEOs, managers, entrepreneurs, juniors and everybody has something to learn and to share, like job and internship offers.
HU: Which advice would you give to a 20-year-old HEC?
H: First is to appreciate what you are doing. But second is to be realistic about the world, because the competition is here. Maybe HEC is no. 1 in France but there are so many famous brands… HEC won’t get you everywhere very easily, so you will have to be very tough and look outside, because they are opportunities everywhere.
HU: Last question. HEC’s motto is “The more you know, the more you dare”. What’s yours?
H: I prepared this one. In China we say: “the more you live, the more you learn” and it’s very easy to understand: life is a learning process and you learn until the very last minute. HEC is a great learning place, but it’s not over!
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