Rolling Stone Gathers Moss with Paradigm Shift, Maurice Tan

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He opened McDonald’s first restaurant in China just one year after graduating from NUS. Embracing that challenge is a hallmark of the way Maurice Tan has carved his career in developing innovative marketing and business solutions for MNCs in China; he has been with Pepsi, Mars, Goodyear and Nokia in China. 19 years on, Maurice is acknowledged as an expert on business in China. Professor Ho Yew Kee, Deputy Dean of NUS Business School, met him in China recently for an update on what’s going on there.

What makes you take up the challenge of opening McDonald’s first restaurant in China?

I was inspired by what I had studied in NUS about companies and brands that played big roles in defining markets. I thought that if that’s the future I wanted to pursue, then there is no bigger market than China. So that attracted me there. I had also heard, in school, about how McDonald’s had broken all records in its first restaurant in Russia, in Moscow. Since Beijing is a bigger market than that, the opening in Beijing would be a historical event and I would be privileged to be a part of that. When I came, I saw a bustling capitalist market at work, consumers were hungry for global brands, and people were hungry for knowledge and growth. There is so much energy here.

Many people stay in the same industry as a specialist. You have traversed different industries. What allows you to be versatile and cross the different industry platforms?

There are career paths that are vertically integrated; you grow through it and become a specialist in the industry. I see my specialization in terms of the market, and that market is China. So that would be my geographical anchor or foundation. The other aspect would be sales and marketing; the common thread across my career, one thing that is consistent, has to do with the consumer – the thought process, framework, discipline in dealing with them is similar. But you need to understand what to apply from one industry to another, and not copy wholesale. That way you would have the right recipe, despite being in different kitchens or using different ingredients.

My first big crossover was from Pepsi to Nokia; it was the first test of what I call “cross-pollination of ideas”. It proved to be workable, broke new barriers and changed assumptions in terms of industries and what drives businesses.

What were the lessons you’ve learnt from your experiences in China?

I have learnt a lot over the years, but if I were to distill it, I’d call up three points.

Firstly, there is no single path to success. Over the years here, I’ve seen amazing things. I’ve seen subordinates who’ve become bosses and entrepreneurs by taking on roles that were seemingly small, and then their company went for IPO, and they become very successful. I’ve seen people who’ve left agencies to start their own small business and, through partnerships, relationships, reputation and hard work, they were able to establish a very good business. So there are many paths and I would encourage a very good business. So there are many paths and I would encourage anyone to explore what fits them. But timing is critical.

Secondly, despite the size of the market, the relevant circle is quite small, so reputation matters. This is not a place where you can make a mistake and run away to hide. I’ve seen people whose past have caught up with them. This happens when I am hiring and do reference checks.

Thirdly, it’s about immersing yourself in the environment. Don’t come to China with a foreign perspective. Of course you’ll have that, but be very open-minded in terms of what and where you can learn, and whomever you can learn from. I learnt a lot from the local customers that I deal with, as much as the Western senior executives that I worked for. These people are able to provide different perspectives, and your ability to bridge those paradigms will make you successful.

Name two things we should not do in China?

One is the tendency to be overly critical. Singapore is a different society, things are well run, very structured. If your mindset is “How come things here are not like this, or that?” you will not succeed. Always check if you are doing this, even unconsciously, because people around you will pick it up.

Two, have an open mind. The big rewarding part about being here is the learning, and it’s a different kind of learning from what you get in Singapore. It is a big country and the spotlight of the world falls here. As part of an MNC in China, you’ll get the direct attention of your main headquarters and the CEO there. Step up and take risks, and you’ll be successful.

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