A business biography unlike others.

Ren Zhengfei, Huawei

“Ren Zhengfei, impatient and resolute due to his military background, advocated wolf culture in the early stages of Huawei’s development; Hou Weigui [head of ZTE], on the contrary, was gentle and tolerant, low key and prudent, sensitive to market and  technology and persistent in that pursuit.

Both fought for survival…

Swords flashing, blood shed, in battles infused with gun smoke, Huawei and ZTE both had wins and losses.”

This description of the rivalry and competition between the two Chinese technology firms highlights what to expect if you are going to read Li Hongwen’s lively and at times colourful ‘business and life biography’ of Zhengfei & Huawei.

I would suggest it won’t feel like most other biographies of business people that you will have read before and that is what makes it both interesting and at times slightly disconcerting. The main section can feel a bit like a cross between a Chinese or Japanese TV melodrama and the HBR.

Having had a career in the military, Ren Zhengfei founded Huawei in 1987 at the age of 42 in a “desolate shack”. Despite a number of setbacks, he has managed to help it become one of the world’s major suppliers of telecom equipment and mobile phones. It now employs 170,000 people, operates globally, had sales revenues of 395 billion RMB (£45billion) with a net profit of 36.9 billion RMB (£4.2 billion).

It is in many ways a classical business success story of battling against the odds. He had to find ways of building his market around more established international players. He had to build his team and both inspire them and drive them hard. He had to overcome product failures and financial threats, all of which he did and has become one of the most widely admired entrepreneurs in China.

The principles of his business philosophy are there, but not always drawn out as clearly in the main text as they might be in other business biographies would do. An interview Ren Zhengfei gave to Xinhua News in 2016 is reprinted at the end of the book and perhaps more clearly highlights some of the key points there. 

They include the not overly surprising continual setting and re-setting of audacious, stretching goals; significant on-going investment in R&D, a commitment to customer service; playing to local strengths and knowledge, working with and learning from companies from around the world and investing in building a strong team of motivated people and not resting on your laurels

Ren Zhengfei comes across as a man with two sides to him which is perhaps spelt most clearly in a section called ‘The eight faces of Ren Zhengfei’.  Here the author describes how he can be both “generous and penny-pinching” and how he “has a short fuse with high-level management…but acts as a lenient father or big brother to ordinary employees”

It was an unusual read and one that made me think a lot about writing styles. Its structure with the main text, a country-by-country explanation of global expansion, a short auto-biographical piece and the interview itself ultimately works well. It is part of the “China Entrepreneurs series” and I will have to read another one to see if the same style “flows like the majestic Shenzhen river” through them all.

By Giles Lury.