This article originally appeared in HongKongEcho 85 - PEARL RIVER DELTA: Can Hong Kong ride the wave?
Highs and lows, Jean-Charles Viancin, CEO and Founder of Super Silicone, has seen both extremes of business at just 34 years of age. We visited his factory in Dongguan for a chat about his rollercoaster journey all the way to China’s industrial heartland.
“Perhaps the luckiest thing in my career is that I never went to business school. Nobody has brainwashed me!” It’s a bold statement from Jean-Charles Viancin, CEO and Founder of Super Silicone, a silicone manufacturer based in Dongguan, China. But with 13,000 sqm of factory and some 300 employees under his management, it’s hard to argue with his candour.
From the age of 16 Jean-Charles spent two years working in factories in France. “This was a particularly traumatising time for me. It taught me how painful it could be to work in a factory. When you understand this, you learn that putting the human first is the most important thing. It means that the way I built the factory is to reverse the pyramid – the workers are the boss, not me,” he says.
At 18 he was running a chain of computer stores, often employing people twice his age. An early-career bankruptcy brought him back down to earth. Normally full of energy and highly animated, he takes an uncharacteristic pause when asked what this experienced did to him. “I went bankrupt not because of the government or the French system, but because of myself. I wasn’t experienced enough at the time. I learnt that you can’t force people to do things and I had to learn this very young. It’s not simple to manage when you’re 18 years old. But it allowed me to avoid the same mistakes in the second phase of my life.”
Not long after, at the age of 21, he arrived in China to trade bakeware goods. Soon he was signing the contract for the purchase of his first factory – “a total dump,” as he recalls. “I remember standing there with my thumb still red [from the ink of contract] and thinking ‘Ok, now what!’” he laughs. Now the factory is churning out five tonnes of silicone a day.
Operating the factory in Dongguan is ideal, due in part to its proximity to Hong Kong. “Being close to Hong Kong is not just a question of tax, but of daily life. I have a family and I’d like my kids to go to school there – but it’s also simple things like wanting to eat a steak on the weekend! It’s more international, it just makes sense.”
The factory itself is a sprawling affair. Music plays over loudspeakers just above the constant hum of machinery. Work is precise, deliberate, measured.
On the factory floor, despite the suit, Jean-Charles wears a branded cap like the other workers. He’s in his element, reeling off the intricacies of every process and every machine as we walk through the factory, greeting staff with a nod, a handshake or a smile. “A lot of these machines are 100% custom made in China to exactly what we need. Only Chinese suppliers are able to do this. It’s about eight times cheaper than German made, but that definitely doesn’t mean it’s worse quality.”
Strength of the region
A Hong Kong resident himself, Jean-Charles is adamant that the futures of the Pearl River Delta and Hong Kong are intertwined. “There’s a great mix of knowledge happening at the moment as mainlanders come to Hong Kong and vice versa. The mindset still needs to be adjusted, but this will happen over time.”
As the region becomes more integrated, there’s an opportunity for greater merging of abilities. Hong Kong remains an important financial hub, but “you still need the manufacturing alongside, you can’t just trade money. That’s where the PRD comes in,” he reasons.
Not one for thinking small, Jean-Charles is firmly behind the idea of the region developing as a megacity in the years to come. “When you look at how Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou have all expanded… It will soon be one city, one economic area. This is can only be a good thing.”
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