Haier is the largest white-good manufacturer, not only in China, but worldwide. IMD professor Bill Fischer explains how the first Chinese company to go global did so by unconditional focussing on their customers, in Strategy Business. How Haier reinvented itself four times in 30 years.
Much of the credit for Haier’s success accrues directly to Zhang Ruimin, the company’s CEO since 1984. Throughout the 30 years of his tenure, his sharp focus on customer service leadership has given the company consistency even as it propels Haier through dramatic changes. Zhang was the leader who proposed that Haier should never see itself as just a manufacturer of products, but instead as a provider of solutions to its customers’ problems. In the earliest years, that meant bringing new levels of quality and reliability to Chinese products. Later, it involved increasingly sophisticated forms of customization and new types of services. Through its simplicity and continuity, this principle has given all employees a reliable compass with which to make decisions, even in the face of disruptive market challenges such as new technologies or new competitors.
To accomplish its goal, Haier has consistently cultivated and rewarded high-quality talent; the company has been a magnet for many of China’s most capable engineers and businesspeople. This approach is especially noteworthy within China’s cultural and social context. In a country that was just beginning to emerge from a Maoist mind-set when Zhang took the helm, the idea that success depended on the entrepreneurial efforts of individuals, recognized for their differences and rewarded for their achievements, was relatively unfamiliar. Haier has thus invested a great deal, especially for a Chinese company, in training its employees and demanding innovative ideas.
Despite the success it has achieved, and its willingness to stick to one core value proposition (and one CEO) since the 1980s, the company has never become complacent. Zhang established early on that changes would be a way of life, not soon-to-be-completed episodes that must be traversed. “The only thing that we know is that we know nothing,” he says. “If you don’t overcome yourself, you will be overcome by others.”
Indeed, Haier has reinvented itself at least four times. The first reinvention, in the 1980s, was the decision to differentiate the company by the quality of its products. The second, in the 1990s, was the adoption of consumer-responsive innovation, starting with (but not limited to) products for particular customer needs. The third, which took place in the 2000s, was the reorganization into a bottom-up structure, in which self-managing teams led decision making. The fourth, going on today, is the reinvention of Haier as a truly Internet-based company, open to the world in a way that few other companies have attempted, let alone realized.
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Bill Fischer is also the author of Reinventing Giants: How Chinese Global Competitor Haier Has Changed the Way Big Companies Transform