We are in a gully on Zhongtiao Mountain, southern Shanxi. In 1969, a group of army officers landed here in their helicopter and made a reconnaissance of the area. They pinpointed a site 1.25 kilometers from the nearest village, and named it Erliban, meaning 2.5 li (1.25 kilometer) in Chinese. Later a munitions factory was erected on the site.
It was in Moli, shabby, dusty little town and site of this factory, that this reporter met Ron Martin, general manager of the Shanxi International Casting Co., Ltd. Martin, in his fifties, did not look 100% fit. Having suffered an attack of diarrhea, he had just been unhooked from an intravenous drip. "This is the first time for years that illness has kept me from my work," said a decidedly wan looking Martin. "The head office suggested I go home for treatment and recovery, but I simply can't, even if it means meeting my maker China," he smiled. We began our chat with why he had chosen to work in this small Chinese gully town.
An Enterpriser Fears No Difficulty
Reporter: You are an expert and successful caster, why have you chosen to work in mid-western China?
Martin: I was born in the mid-west US. I love places where there are mountains and fields, like my hometown. In the winter of 1995, as representative of the Caterpillar Foundry, I led a six-member team to China. Our purpose was to find a site suitable for a joint venture project, and our selection of a mid-western area complies with the Chinese government's investment and industrial policy. Around 1996, China was strengthening its environmental efforts, and it seemed likely that large industrial enterprises would move away from the main cities. In 1996 I came to China 14 times, and visited cities such as Shanghai, Shenzhen, Wuhan and Dalian. After looking at many large foundries, I finally found this place, known locally as Erliban.
Reporter: I hear that the negotiations for a joint venture took more than six months. What were the main problems, and what motivated you to persist?
Martin: Negotiations were certainly not easy. The Chinese side was under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of War Industry, Many of them considered a joint venture between a foreign company and a military enterprise as risky. But I believe that everyone has something to accomplish in his or her lifetime, and for me it was this joint venture. I have always believed that a successful enterpriser should face and deal with all difficulties as they arise.
In September 1997, the year of my 50th birthday, the Shanxi International Casting Co., Ltd., was established. Our two partners are ASIMCO and CITIC-MMI. Investment from all three sides totals US $100 million. Our long-term goal is to produce 85,000 tons of auto engine castings annually for Caterpillar USA and other large engine manufacturers in China and abroad. After a year's preparation, on October 30, 1998 the joint venture went into production. It is now China's largest independent commercial foundry.
An Enterpriser Needs to Be on the Alert
Reporter: As general manager representing the foreign contingent of a joint venture in China, you must have met all kinds of difficulties. What was your biggest challenge during the first few years? I hear that after taking the job the very first thing you did was to remove all doors and windows and build a bathhouse. Why?
Martin: Everyone has his own management style. I want a win-win result, so we first selected 500 people from the original 3,500 workers and formed a crack joint venture team. Next, we changed the office building layout by removing the old-style doors and windows to create a transparent environment suitable for communication between workers. Managerial staff are required to attend workshops as often as possible, rather than just sitting in the office.
According to our management policy, our people are essential to the whole operation. If they are to work well, they need good working conditions. We therefore invested 1.3 million yuan in renovating the old bathrooms. Now every worker has his or her own locker. The dining hall, which provides free lunch -- three dishes and soup, for workers -- has also undergone a face-lift. We publish a company newspaper with a special "Martin Hotline" column, where I answer questions of general interest to workers. There are inevitable problems and troubles involved in managing a joint venture, but an enterpriser must be thinking all the time. My slogan is: every problem has its solution.
An Enterpriser Must Be a Team Leader
Reporter: I have heard that certain American experts have come to work here and left after only two weeks, and that you currently hire foreign experts on a three-monthly basis. What measures have you taken to attract and retain human resources?
Martin: In my view, an enterprise's biggest asset is its human resources. I want my employees to regard the enterprise as their home. If the company can fulfill their needs, employees will remain loyal, making it all the stronger. I often talk to my managers over supper about their family life and personal development, and each of them knows their value within the enterprise as my representative. My objective is similar to that of sports coach -- to maintain a good working team.
This is an out-of-way mountainous area, with few human resources. I once brought a few experts here, hoping they would stay and work with me. But they left, never to return. This emphasized the need for my own versatility, and to put to use all my years' experience at head office and abroad. In order to create and maintain a good team I must train the local people. To this end, in the coming five years the company will invest 2 million yuan in human resource training. I have also invited the children of staff attending senior high school and university to work at the company for an hour a day during their vacation. This familiarizes them with what their parents do and gives them a solid employment option for the future. We also have a training agreement with the Xi'an Foreign Language University. I plan to establish a special fund for my staff's children, whereby US $10,000 a year will be provided for their higher education.
An Enterpriser Needs High EQ
Reporter: Quite a few of your employees tell me that you are a workaholic. Where does your enthusiasm come from?
Martin: I have a high emotional quotient. I accepted working in China as a personal cause. To be an enterpriser, one must be tenacious to the extent of insanity. There is no personal freedom, and a resilient spirit is a prerequisite. What I do is not simply a job, but enjoyment of life. When I wake up each morning, I feel excitement at the prospect of work. I work 16 hours a day. This includes getting up at 4 o'clock to handle my e-mail, doing exercises at five, having breakfast at 6:30, and then work proper. I usually get home at 9 pm. If I should feel low, a walk around the factory cheers me up.
At Erliban a satellite antenna has been erected especially for Martin so that he can watch CNN and other international news programs. He has no other source of English language communication. -Ed.
An Enterpriser Must Be Prepared to Start All over Again at Any Time
Reporter: You describe life on a Chinese mountain as similar to that in a survival camp. I hear your wife left you here after a six-month stay, so you live and work alone.
Martin: Looking back over these past few years, my biggest problem has been my failure to reconcile my work and family life. Two divorces have caused me great pain, and in both cases my "workaholism" was cited as the direct cause. An enterpriser must be prepared to start all over again at any time. At the time I came to China to select a site for the joint venture, I had just married my second wife -- a cardiologist, and we had a big new house. My parents were well, my children were married, and I was a grandfather. This, I thought, was the scenario for the rest of my life. On arriving home after my head office appointment as general manager in China, I told my wife tentatively: "I have good and bad news for you. The good news is that I have a new job, with a promotion." She was very excited and congratulated me, and then asked me about the bad news. My answer: "I'm going to China to start a new factory," shocked her. "How could you ask me to go with you? How come?" That unhappy night, I slept in the sitting room.
An Enterpriser Demands Sacrifice
Reporter: I can't imagine what life must have been like when you and your wife first came.
Martin: There was no running water, bathroom, or heating -- none of the living conditions regarded as staple in the United States. We cooked on coal. Our first nine months here was spent on building a living environment. My wife took the responsibility of managing this guesthouse, which then lacked fundamental living facilities. We wanted a glass door for the bathroom, but this was not easily accomplished, as the local people saw no need for such niceties as a closed door when bathing. We planted a lawn in the courtyard and taught the attendants how to use a mower, and also how to cook Western meals. When we bought our carpet and cleaned it with a vacuum cleaner, its noise frightened our house attendants. I was surprised to find that many of the locals had never left the place, and that the idea of going to a big city like Beijing was to them as unlikely as going to New York.
Life here is too isolated and lonely for an American woman like my former wife. She could not speak Chinese, had no friends, and nowhere to go. Eventually something happened that forced her to leave. As she was in the kitchen cooking one day, a local quarantine officer came in and insisted on searching the kitchen, saying that we had brought American food into China without going through the appropriate quarantine inspection. My wife was very angry and asked him to leave at once. This incident was the last bitter straw for her, and she left. I followed her back to the States, and asked her to come back to me. She said she would on condition that I work in the States. But I could not leave China. When she asked me how long my stay here would be, I told her I had an obligation towards investors in the enterprise, and that I must continue my work here. She then asked for a divorce. It took me a long time to get over this.
Reporter: Love gives strength, but the loss of a love could destroy one's motivation for anything else. How did you hold up to this day?
Martin: I told myself that I should not relinquish my ideals, nor give in to personal sadness. An enterpriser makes both gains and losses. Reading the biographies of great men has made me see that a true man has a sense of responsibility towards the world. I have participated in challenging sports, such as bungee jumping, rafting, and skiing, so as to temper my courage. Here, I like to go into the surrounding mountains at weekends, and spend time with a man in his 70s I met there, whose independence I admire, and whom I have taken as my nominal father.
Reporter: Your father once came to visit you. Does he worry about your life here? Jack Perkowski (chairman of SICC Board) said on one occasion that any American who can work for a long period of time in China must be something special. Do you agree?
Martin: Both of them were anxious about the ostensibly hard life I live here, and worried that I might be risking imprisonment. Most Americans know nothing about China, and I need to do a lot of explaining. The topic I have talked most on is China's birth control policy. Of course, there are also huge numbers of Chinese that know nothing about Americans. The majority believe that Americans live an easy and a comfortable life, and are surprised when I tell them that there are actually many Americans like me who work for enterprises, and have similar goals of self-realization.
I have considered leaving here on several occasions. The main reason for my staying on is the local people. They have confidence in me, and I have confidence in this joint venture. The Chinese government's Western Development Strategy is a wise policy, and will make China an even greater country within 25 years. I believe our joint venture will become a world casting center within 10 years.
Reporter: What is the most unforgettable event for you during your years in China?
Martin: That would be my 50th birthday. I had previously arranged to go back home for a family reunion, but did not. I had no idea that so many people would come to visit me. More than 180 people filled my courtyard on a bitterly cold day, and some had come especially from Beijing. I was greatly moved; these friends of mine gave me courage. I hung all the paintings from my Chinese friends in the guesthouse corridor. On leaving for work each morning, the inscription on the first painting I see gives me inspiration for the day's work ahead. It is Ma Dao Chenggong.
(This is a Chinese proverb, meaning success immediately upon arrival. Dao means arrive, and chenggong means success. Ma refers to a general's horse, but is also the first part of Martin's Chinese name. So the proverb can be translated, "Success comes with the horse's arrival." This is, therefore, a fitting maxim. Ed.)
(China Today, February 2, 2003)