Swedish Young Man’s Bond with China – Story of A Tsinghua MBA Exchange Student
December 21, 2012
By Doris Duoduo Xun
When he was just 17 years old, Anders Hammarback co-founded an IT company, today known as Mimers Brunn (www.mimersbrunn.se), one of Sweden’s most popular websites for students. He was subsequently selected to be part of the Global Leadership Program by Goldman Sachs. As one of 50 future young leaders in the world, he attended a prestigious training program in New York with a scholarship, which was followed by an internship in Goldman Sachs’ London Office with a full-time job offer. Promising as his prospects in Europe would have been, Hammarback embarked on his unknown journey to China and his everlasting bond with China began.
Anders Hammarback (An exchange student of International MBA Program, Tsinghua SEM)
It all started coincidentally when the International MBA program of Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management (Tsinghua SEM) established an exchange program with Stockholm School of Economics in 2005, just a couple of weeks before Hammarback was supposed to go on an exchange program to another Asian university. Due to China’s increasingly prominent influence in the world and Tsinghua University’s unparalleled status in China, many students applied to change their exchange program destination but he was fortunate enough to get accepted.
His belief in China was reinforced by the Global Leadership Program taught at Tsinghua SEM by John Thornton, the former President of Goldman Sachs. During his study at Tsinghua, Hammarback met a beautiful Italian young lady who later became his beloved wife. Having decided to develop his career in China, he became the National Production Director of the Education First (EF) in China in 2009 at the age of 27.
Life-Changing Experiences at Tsinghua SEM
“Studying at Tsinghua SEM for 6 months was one of the best experiences in my life – it was amazing and life-changing both professionally and personally.” Said Hammarback.
Tsinghua SEM’s rigorous and cutting-edge program taught by world-class professors further expanded his knowledge of general management. Hammarback still vividly remembers how challenging yet rewarding the courses were, such as Data, Models and Decisions, Human Resources Management and Innovation. More importantly, he gained a deeper understanding in China’s role in the world economy on the ground in Beijing and became fascinated by the dynamism of the Chinese economy and profoundness of the Chinese culture.
Hammarback felt very lucky to be chosen among 50 Tsinghua SEM students by John Thornton, the former Goldman Sachs President, to participate in his Global Leadership Program in China. John Thornton not only gave thought-provoking lectures but also invited world-renowned guest speakers especially flying in for the Leadership Seminar every week.
“It really showed what a great name and superb networks Tsinghua had. I listened to over 15 speeches in the Global Leadership Seminar, which were very rewarding to me as a young student. John Thornton and the speakers were like me – we were all curious and enthusiastic about China. Having all these CEOs, political leaders, and famous academics from all over the world coming up and sharing their perspectives on how China had been changing the world, I gained the most exclusive and inspirational insights into China in the global business context. It became so clear to me that China would be so important for the whole world and also for me as a person. I could really feel it almost every day.” he said.
Anders Hammarback (First Left) and John Thornton (Second Left) in the classroom of the Global Leadership Program at Tsinghua SEM
Another unforgettable experience included Hammarback participating in the Booz Allen Hamilton MBA Case Competition in Germany, Nov. 2005 representing Tsinghua SEM and winning the second place among 16 teams from countries across the world.
“Our team was comprised of two Germans, a Danish guy and me. We felt very proud yet a bit strange to represent China as four foreigners. We had a huge responsibility to perform well so we worked very hard 24 hours without sleep. After we submitted the report and made the presentation, we were so tired that we all fell asleep at the celebration party.” he said to laughter.
In addition, he played in the Tsinghua SEM Football Team every weekend. He remembered clearly the celebration party after the season was over. Even though his team didn’t win the tournament, they still wanted to celebrate. They decided to go to a restaurant with very peculiar food (from a Swedish perspective!). He tried pig’s brain and bull whack, which were considered to be good for strong football players.
A Longer Stay, Reluctance to Go, and Eventual Return
After his study at Tsinghua SEM, with growing fascination about China, he decided to stay in Beijing for another 6 months to learn Chinese at Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU), which he considered as a big investment for his future and an initial commitment to China.
He had taken a beginner Chinese course at Tsinghua SEM but his Chinese at that time was still very basic. However, he persistently nagged the language training staff to assign him to Level B Class, which was actually beyond his Chinese capability. In the end, the staff gave in. For the first time, Hammarback found that he was the worst student in the class. His competitive personality and passion for the Chinese culture prompted him to work extremely hard and his Chinese improved tremendously.
While he was studying at BLCU, which was just across the road from Tsinghua, he still stayed in touch with many Chinese friends and kept attending forums, lectures and alumni events at Tsinghua SEM. As six months of learning Chinese flew away, he had already been accepted as a consultant at McKinsey in Sweden. He knew that it was time to go back and resume his professional life but it was already impossible for him to leave everything behind. “I will come back!” It was the voice from the bottom of his heart.
On his first day starting at McKinsey, he asked if it was possible for him to be transferred to China. When he got a negative answer since he had just joined McKinsey in Stockholm, he realized that he needed to be patient.
Thanks to his past internship experience in Nigeria in 2004, Hammarback was assigned to projects in Nigeria and Congo for over half a year working in the telecom industry in 2007. An interesting change happening in Nigeria suddenly struck him. When he was first in Lagos, a major city in Nigeria, in 2004, he didn’t see many foreigners. However, three years later, Chinese people and restaurants were everywhere in Lagos because many Chinese companies had been helping Nigeria build out its infrastructure. Having just returned from China he was happy to see such surprising change. He frequently dined in Chinese restaurants to relieve his “homesickness” and also made some Chinese friends. His friends in Nigeria told him that there was even more Chinese presence in Nigeria after he left there.
Having done the projects in Africa, he worked on some other projects for over a year in Sweden and finally had the chance to participate in projects in China for McKinsey supporting Swedish companies to enter China and acting as a link between the Swedish clients and the Chinese teams in Shanghai and Beijing Office. Three years of his working at McKinsey enabled him to experience China from outside perspectives.
Hammarback believed that working as a consultant in different industries and countries in the beginning of his career was an extraordinary learning experience. He learned about business practice in many aspects through projects focusing on lean operations, sales force effectiveness, cost cutting, growth strategy and market entry etc. However, he felt that he missed the consistency and long-term strategy in a company where he could contribute to its growth in a long run.
Working at McKinsey, Hammarback never stopped searching for new opportunities to relocate to China. He had received offers from several Swedish companies recruiting talents to work in China. Eventually, he found EF, which he viewed as a fast growing company with the most exciting future in China and the culture he fitted the most. Through fiercely competitive interview process in Sweden, China and London, he finally won the position of the National Production Director based in Shanghai responsible for profitability, service quality and logistics of all operations for EF’s Kids & Teens Division managing a team of 11 direct reports, and indirectly 350 academic staff in 35 training schools in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
Destination He Found in China
Hammarback explained that production at EF meant production of education. The key to success was to ensure best academic and service quality and efficiency in operation and to provide the right products and services for target customers. It was a people-intensive industry highly relying on teamwork.
Hammarback directly managed a team of 11 people from 6 countries including China with one person working on logistics, one on teacher recruitment, and others in academia to ensure that they could retain the right teachers and staff and provide proper training in order to deliver the best quality products and services. To effectively lead his team, he tried his best to not only be as respectful as possible about their cultures, but also get to know each individual well and keep both cultural and personal traits in mind without propagating cultural stereotypes.
Due to the increased popularity of English studies in China, EF is expanding quickly opening up new learning centers in all cities. To build a new school, firstly, they had to find a good location with a large traffic of target consumers. More evidently than a few years ago, parents prefer leaving their child at EF to do some shopping and then pick up their children after school. Careful market research was vitally important before choosing the location. They spent a great amount of time in examining all kinds of data they could get from different sources to identify local demographics including predominant industries, average income and age, where people in the surrounding area worked and lived, and how they commuted to the designated location etc. Customer segments for different schools varied dramatically. For example, customer preferences in Haidian District in Beijing are not always the same as customer preferences in Xujiahui District in Shanghai.
The next step is to negotiate the lease agreement followed by school construction and equipment procurement. In the meantime, one of the most challenging and time-consuming task was to recruit the best talents including teachers and staff to run the school. School staff included sales managers, director of studies etc. He then spent a lot of time in communicating with new employees to make sure that they worked well together. He also sent them to existing schools for training. Once a new school was built, it was time to attract students, hire teachers and provide training.
Hammarback greatly enjoyed interacting with local Chinese including vendors, employees and customers in Chinese. Challenging as it was, he learned how to do business in China. He gradually understood the nuances and implied meanings in communication and when to confirm, when to push a little bit more, and when he could be calm and let things happen.
An incredible experience for him was when talking to vendors and business partners across China, as long as he mentioned that he was a Tsinghua alumnus, people would almost always warmly express their admiration towards him. He believed that the influence of Tsinghua in China was even stronger than that of Harvard in America. The reputation of Tsinghua was a golden name card for him to break the ice, build good relationship and establish trust.
Follow His Heart and Mind
Hammarback commented that the main theme of his career path so far was to always follow his heart and mind. He believed that everything he did in life would add to his competency and personality and eventually benefit his future. The key to success was to enjoy what he was doing and take on new challenges.
He mentioned that his parents had never given him any pressure on getting good grades but plenty of support. He initially dreamed of becoming a professional ice hockey player and did a lot of sports in his youth and later realized that he was not adept enough to follow the professional sportsperson’s path. He was interested in programming and web design so he went to an IT high school and started an IT company with his classmates while maintaining an excellent academic performance. 5 years later, he made a successful exit through the sale of his company. To enrich his IT background, he pursued his bachelor study in liberal arts in America. When running the company, he realized that his interests lay in business and management more so than in technology so he applied for master’s study in Business and Economics at Stockholm School of Economics. During his master study, he did internships during most holidays in America, Africa and Europe and then he was curious about China. Once again, he followed his passion and finally found his destination to be China.