In this article, Thibaud Andre, a French consultant in Shanghai, sits down with JX Paulin, founder of DBX International, to discuss some of his experiences and successes doing business during the last 20 years in China and into the future with an eye on Africa.
Andre: Mr. Paulin, in a few months you will be celebrating 20 years of business in China. You have been managing your own company that you created from scratch in the 1990s. I guess it’s only fair to call you an expert in the field of entrepreneurship.
Paulin: I don’t know about expert, but for sure I am a veteran! Those who have managed to stay as long as I did in such a rough business environment will understand this choice of words.
A: You founded your own company ten years ago. What are the key assets that helped you to build your business in China?
P: I created DBX International in Shanghai ten years ago. In a few years, my company became the leader in the Design and Build field in Shanghai. As of today, I have a staff of 200 people. However, my activities are in fact far more extensive than this. I recently created a new brand, named My Simax, which designs tactile devices for emerging countries, especially in Africa. Besides our skills and our adamant professionalism, my background in Shanghai has been very beneficial. In the last ten years, I have worked in different positions in various fields ranging from hospitality to trading and consulting. These experiences not only gave me a chance to become knowledgeable on many topics related to entrepreneurship, but also allowed me to build a strong network of friends and colleagues. Of course, this did not prevent me from coming across a few hardships, but eventually we overcame them all.
A: Why did you choose China to develop your business?
P: Beyond the development of my business, I assume my arrival in China is quite unique. I went in Shanghai in 1994, at first for a simple visit, wanting to learn more about traditional Chinese medicine. As I felt such a great potential in this country and I was seduced by the business vision of the Chinese, I finally decided to settle down in China permanently. At this time, I had to deal with a lot of pessimistic talk from people. “What are you doing in this poor country?! There is no demand in China and you have plenty of it here! You are a fool!” This is what I heard 20 years ago. Today, after being supported and driven by the dynamism and the ambition of Chinese market, I am the founder of successful businesses and I know I made the right choice.
A: What are the main difficulties you met in China?
P: Nowadays, everybody is willing to take benefit for the huge potential and the outstanding growth of the Chinese market. However, the other side of the coin is the fierce competition in all industry sectors. For ten years, since I launched my very first business, I’ve been fighting daily with thousands of competitors, each one more aggressive than the other. It’s like everyday is like Rocky 3! Furthermore, doing business in China includes dealing with massive differences in culture. Indeed, you will have to adapt to a new business environment and to learn new customs and etiquette. It requires a lot of effort. Mainly, as a foreigner, a “waiguo ren” (外国人), you might be seen differently and be faced with tougher negotiating partners.
A: Did you ever want to trade your job for something quieter?
P: No, I never did. I’d be lying though if I told you that I never wanted to slam the door and walk away sometimes. However, whether it was Kelly, my Chinese partner, or me that was going through a rough patch, we always found a way to get each other up and back on the right track.
A: How did you manage these difficulties?
P: To manage the competition, you must always be one step ahead and make an effort to stay there. It is crucial to work with people who are not only capable (this is the minimum requirement), but also visionary! You should have this ambition to always create new things, to lead the way!
When it comes to cross-cultural issues, experience will lead you to better understand this market and its customs. I had the chance to become an entrepreneur after ten years in China, during which I worked in a wide range of sectors, such as hospitality, trading, consulting… It not only allowed me to extend my knowledge about business in China, but also to build a valuable professional and personal network.
A: What motivates you the most?
P: The first thing is the commitment towards our clients. Then the pleasure that comes from a job well done and the desire to bring our team to their full potentials. Failure is not an option you know… Another major thing that counts for me is the human factor. I work for my employees as much as they work for me. The company’s growth is paramount, but if it wasn’t for the betterment of the people, it would lack purpose. When you actually see the impact of your leadership to other people’s lives, it changes you and your understanding of entrepreneurship. Your motivations are not only pecuniary or related to the growth of your company anymore because you gain a social purpose that becomes a major drive.
A: A few months ago you were received at the Elysée [French presidential palace] along with some of the most influencial CEOs in the world. To name a few : Jack Ma and Serge Dassault. How did you feel about it?
P: Somewhat proud of course. Shaking hands with the president and being invited to the Elysée with the CEOs of companies like Alibaba, Dassault, and Cathay Group is a true honor and pleasure. While staying humble about it, I really enjoyed such an opportunity. We are only a medium-sized enterprise, but we truly stand up for a certain vision of entrepreneurship, that is to say, one that creates employment and wealth. I think it’s what bring success in a market such as China’s.
A: If you had to give three insider tips to young businessmen wanting to settle in China, what would they be?
P: Due to my “veteran” status, the French Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as various consulting firms often call upon me to meet their clients and advise them on how to enter the Chinese market. Generally, my first three recommendations are the following:
1) Come prepared, not prejudiced.
2) Be daring. Do not try to recreate your country’s business model. It most likely will not work. Be inventive.
3) Show respect. China is no colony.
A: What are your plans for the future?
P: I just invested in MY SIMAX,a start-up developing touch screen devices mainly designed for African markets. I am very hopeful about the development of Africa in the very near future. I am Franco-Togolese and I would like to contribute to the rise of Africa by providing high-technology for schools, administration, governments, and hospitals. Some people will tell me it is too early, Africa is not ready. I shall tell them, “That is exactly what people told me when I decided to move to China 20 years ago.” I guess I was not that insane.
Thibaud Andre is a French consultant working at Chinese market research firm Daxue Consulting. He is passionate about Chinese culture and likes to share insights about the many emerging markets of the Middle Kingdom.