July 11, 2018

A General Manager Journey in the Automotive Industry

By Juanjo Cardona

12 min

AutomotiveChange ManagementLeadership

Interview with Rixin Zhang, General Manager at Vector Automotive Technology in China, about his career journey and what he sees as his mission and the company’s in the region

Our interview with Dr.- Ing. Rixin Zhang, Vector Automotive Technology (Shanghai)’s General Manager, evolved around two journeys.

The first being the sort of journey that most likely comes to mind to anyone, which is in its geographical or physical sense. We talked about what took him to Germany to complete his studies and, after ten years in Karlsruhe, coming back to China. That journey is there for everyone to see.

The second journey takes place at a more personal, intimate level: it is a journey of professional transformation. From individual contributor roles, starting as a young software development engineer, to a leadership position overseeing a team of 100. And what did it entail for him to move from focusing purely on the technical towards developing a much comprehensive view of the business. He shared with us how did he come to develop a much broader set of skills.


You will enjoy this read if…


…you are a young leader, or are on your way to senior leadership roles such General Manager or Managing Director of an organization in China and want to learn the first-hand account of someone that has already gone through the same journey you are in now.

…you are C-level executive sitting in the European head-quarter of a small-medium sized business with operations in China and want to know how you could support your regional leadership team to fare better.


The German Beginnings


JUANJO: I saw on your LinkedIn that you studied in Germany. Maybe you could tell us how did that unravel. So, how come did you find yourself in Germany?


RIXIN: I went to Germany in 2003 after a series of circumstances that lead to one of the best decisions I inadvertently ever made. Before going to Germany, I studied Information Engineering at Zhejiang University. During my studies, I started to learn German.

I knew I wanted to travel, to study abroad, and see the world. I initially considered the U.S. but in 2002 to get a visa there was difficult – it was in the aftermath of 9/11. Because I had the language skills and because Germany is well renowned for its engineering expertise that was the second best choice I could think of. And it turned out to be the best decision I made in my life.


JUANJO: How did Germany surprise you? How was starting there from zero?


RIXIN: It wasn’t exactly starting from zero. I already spoke the language, so that was a valuable asset. The first week was a little harsh, a bit of a cultural shock but I got acquainted with daily routines quite fast.

It was a significant time for me. I was sharing a place and studying with international students including many German. With my roommates we hang out together, we had long conversations, we played together, and we partied together. It was a great time, and I have very fond memories.

Between my studies and work, I ended up spending ten years in Germany. I feel Germany is very close to me. Even my colleagues here in China they often say, half joking, that I am too German!


JUANJOWhen you finished your studies in Germany you joined a company in Karlsruhe that later on became a subsidiary of Vector. And you have been with Vector ever since. You landed in the Shanghai office in 2013.

Coming back to China was it something you had planned? Or was it a window of opportunity that opened unexpectedly and you grasped it?


RIXIN: I wouldn’t say that was part of a strategy. Over the course of the years in Germany, I had quite a lot of contact with the China business. I traveled several times here during the year to visit clients. Then a possibility came up: the company had to set up a local product line and a small team around it to run it. I was offered to lead that team.

In addition to that my wife is Chinese and she is more prone to live in China, whereas I think I could be anywhere really.

So that was an essential component to factor in. After considering it, we decided it was both a good professional and personal opportunity.


JUANJO: What happened next?


RIXIN: Things went well for the business, and in 2016 I took over as General Manager. Now we have six product lines here in China and a team of about 100 people.


JUANJO: What does this mean for you? What is the difference between the 2013 Rixin Zhang and the one I am talking to today?


RIXIN: Back in 2013 I was much more focused on the technical aspects of our products. My concern then was to promote our offering, which required much technical knowledge to address very product-specific questions. I was more focused on the technical aspects of the specific product line I was running.

Today, when it comes to the Chinese market, I have a much broader vision and a better understanding. I am also more detached from the technical stuff now than in the past. I mean, I still need to keep close tabs on it because we sell to engineers and it requires that I understand what is going on from a technical perspective.

However, today I need to be on top of the performance of other areas: strategy, marketing, human resources, finance. So my focus is spread thin across several functions of the business.

Also, I would say that now I am more connected to the global trends of the industry. Shanghai is indeed a much more international hub than Karlsruhe, so here it is easier to develop more connections with international professionals in the industry. As counterintuitive as it might sound from a Chinese returning to China, here I developed a much international, global view.


JUANJO: In 2016, when you had to take over the business and as the scope of your responsibilities broadened how you manage to expand your skills?


RIXIN: Well, I have to admit the transition period was not easy. The first three months were quite tough.

While in Germany I had taken a Master in Business Administration and Management, so I had some basic, theoretical understanding of some of the subjects. Although I did not have practical experience, that knowledge proved very useful when I took over as General Manager.

However, if I managed to go through the adaptation process was thanks to the team. In each different area of the business, I got the support from staff that had a deeper understanding of the particular subjects I needed to learn more about. The ability to work collaboratively as a team is something that I value enormously, and for a good reason. I also had the support of our head-quarter. They were generous and patient, giving me the time I needed. Of course, it was all very stressful, no doubt about that, but we managed.

I think it is critical to rely on your staff, to develop trust with your team, so you can all bounce ideas. There are always new topics, new challenges popping up. They are complicated issues, and you need the whole collective intelligence of the team to overcome the obstacles in the way. I am myself in a continuous learning mode, and so I want our team to be too.


Human Resources at Vector


JUANJO: Currently, from a human resources perspective, which areas are you more involved at a strategic level? Would you say it is recruitment, talent development, retention,…?


RIXIN: Driven by the quick pace of business development we need the fulfill our running and long-term HR goals. Recruitment is undoubtedly an essential component. We have opened several channels to improve our recruitment both in China and Germany. Besides young engineers who have studied in local universities, we also try to recruit graduates who are going to finish their studies in Germany. To find suitable candidates remains, however, difficult.

On the long run, talent retention and career development are the most strategic elements we are focusing on. We would like to grow with our employees. This long-term commitment is in particular crucial for us not only because to train an employee requires time but also because this is how I believe we will secure sustainable development. Besides a competitive compensation, a good working environment and job security, the underlying “engineering culture” is our answer. Our engineers shall have a lot of fun to work here and enjoy a high degree of freedom.

We consider ourselves a “Hidden champion”, often not well-known by the general public. Compared to bigger companies where they usually have a higher employer brand awareness, small-to-medium sized German companies such as ours might not look that attractive to outsiders at first sight. Many of our employees come recommended by other colleagues. Employee referrals are proving useful to us. We believe that only satisfied employees are willing to recommend someone they know to join the same company. Naturally, successful recommendations will get rewarded but all in all employee referrals save a lot of effort and financial resources.


JUANJO: How is your HR team supporting you? What is, in your opinion, the mission of HR at Vector?


RIXIN: The ideal support from the HR team comes from their ability to balance short-term and long-term targets. It shall strive for high employee satisfaction and be viewed by employees as a reliable support partner for their growth. If our employees are willing to share their problems/ideas with HR, I will see our HR mission is to a large degree achieved. There is still a gap, we are not there yet but I believe we are on the right path.


JUANJO: How would you encapsulate Vector’s Employee Value Proposition?


RIXIN: I would synthesize it as follows: Vector is THE ideal company to work for within our domain of expertise.


JUANJO: Is there any type of regular alignment in terms of Human Resources with global headquarters? How does communication flow work?


RIXIN: The different regional organizations run their own HR, decentralized from global headquarters. But we share the same spirit, where employee satisfaction is among the top priorities.


JUANJO: Is there any issue in particular that you find especially challenging when trying to explain it to global headquarter?


RIXIN: China is very dynamic, and Shanghai particularly. Changes and rotation in the team are more frequent than at headquarter level. The tension between a highly-dynamic environment and keeping the focus on our long-term mission is likely higher here than in other regions. It is not always easy to convey the whole picture of what is going on here and perhaps this can only be done after coming to Shanghai and experiencing the issue first hand.  Actually, when we compare our company with the average turnover of similar companies in Shanghai, we are doing very well. At the same time, though, keeping a stable team is the most challenging work we face in HR here.


Your Mission Today


JUANJO: At this point what would you say your primary mission is here?


RIXIN: Two things. Towards our clients, our mission is to make their work easier. Our end users are engineers at OEMs and Tier 1 Automotive suppliers. So, we need to develop software tools and provide a level of service that allows them to be better at what they do.

The Automotive industry in China is scattered through the country, with plenty of research and development centers all over the place, and it is a very dynamic sector with new OEMs popping up here and there (i.e., electronic vehicles). In the U.S., for example, there may be Detroit and some West coast cities, but in China the industry is much more distributed geographically. There is also an ample range of variation here regarding knowledge and capabilities from an engineering perspective: some players are just lagging a little behind their U.S., German or Japanese competitors, whereas for others the gap is much more significant.

The needs, expectations and technical knowledge of our customers vary and continuously change, posing an organizational challenge to keep up whether it is at the communication level, product development or customer service. With all that in mind, we have to develop solutions that simplify our customer’s engineering work in a way that is sustainable for us as a business. That would be one of my primary missions here.

To be able to do that, and here I come to the second part of my mission, we need a great team. We need people here to feel happy, to feel valued, to know that everyone is working in the same direction, that we are all aligned.


JUANJO: How do you inform your thinking about the latest developments, or how do you collect new insights to stay on top of things?


RIXIN: I spent a much time talking with our team, maybe half of my time goes to that. I try to be very open, to listen to them, and even find a way that we can meet some of their personal needs. I want to know what do they think and what do they care about, and try to see if together we can find a way to make things even better around here.

About 30% of my time goes to customer related matters, whether it is just talking to them, following up on contracts, and such. Then I probably spend 20% of my time having external conversations. I use external events, like fairs and conferences, to network with both international and Chinese peers to have a better understanding of what is happening in the market. I also travel often to Germany and the U.S. to have a look at what is going on.


JUANJO: In these conversations with the team, anything that stood out? Something that you thought: “Oh that is such a good idea!”


RIXIN: We talk a lot about business, on how to keep our customers engaged and satisfied. Many ideas are floating, and it is not an easy thing to sort them out. We need to see what makes sense, understand whether they are feasible to implement.

We did come up with some marketing initiatives, like a small gift that we designed, as well as an idea for a social gathering. I mean these two are just small examples. We are looking at step-by-step incremental changes, rather than to introduce dramatic innovations. It is something that we are still working on. I mean incremental changes are always a work in progress.


JUANJO: How do you start your day?  Do you have any morning habit or routine that helps you be more productive the rest of the day or remain more focused?


RIXIN: I come to the office early, about one hour or so before anyone else comes in. During that hour I can focus systematically on just one topic. It is just me, in my office, thinking by myself. Then, comes 9 am, I can cope with the rest of the day – which I know I won’t be able to have this type of time for myself. That’s why I like intercontinental flights. No phone, no email, just plenty of time – usually eight or nine hours straight – to focus on one or two subjects.

Another thing I use, although this is not a morning habit, is swimming. I do once a week long distance swimming. It helps me stay sharp and keep physically fit. I have two little kids and almost all my downtime goes to the family, but this one thing I keep for myself.


JUANJO: What piece of technology or gadget has helped you recently to improve your productivity?


RIXIN: Outlook Calendar. Yes! (He laughs). I know, it doesn’t sound very fancy but it is of great help to me. Every day I put at least 15 minutes to take a look at what I need to do today, tomorrow, next week and even within the current quarter.


JUANJO: Now, how consistent is that scheduling? Once you set it there, does it remain or do you need to readjust continually? 


RIXIN: What I like is what happens when I look at those boxes in the calendar, each representing an appointment – whether it is with sales, human resources, or with someone from the team to discuss a technical subject. As I stare at them I am already thinking, I am already working on the issue and I can reassess its level of priority, and reschedule if need be.


“Never forget that technology is for people. Do not ignore the human factor. As an engineer I used to believe that the shortest distance to get from A to B was a straight line. With people this is often not the case”


JUANJO: What about books or readings in general? Has there been any reading recently that has had a very positive impact on you whether it’s personally or professionally?


RIXIN: I have given up a little bit the reading. Did I mention I have two small kids? Not much free time anymore. When I had the luxury of time it is not that I had a clear theme or topic. Something would pick my interest, and I would further explore it. Well, I do enjoy reading about history and culture. For work, I also need to look at some technical papers now and then. Moreover, I also read about parenting and kids’ education lately.


JUANJO: You have been in your current role for a certain while now. What would be your piece of advice to anyone that has to embark on a similar journey? Or what is the main lesson you have derived from your journey that you believe can be helpful to others?


RIXIN: I’d say never forget that technology is for people. I mean, never ignore the human factor – emotions, mistakes – when designing technological solutions. There’s nothing like a perfect solution: there is always a certain risk, a certain level of uncertainty and you have to make some compromises. My background is in engineering, and I used to believe that the shortest distance to get from A to B was a straight line. With people, this is often not the case.


JUANJO: To finish, what image comes to your mind that best represents what you are doing here at Vector.


RIXIN: Well, interesting. I would say something that goes with being a facilitator? Facilitate the professional and personal growth of others. Which in turn allows me to grow as well.


JUANJO: Thank you Rixin. Thanks a lot for your time.


RIXIN: Thank you.




If you only have a minute, here you have a brief summary of the most valuable insights from the interview, in Rixin’s own words:


A) Rely on your staff, develop trust with your team, so you can all bounce ideas. There are always new topics, new challenges popping up. They are complicated issues, and you need the whole collective intelligence of the team to overcome them.


B) As an engineer, I used to believe that the shortest distance to get from A to B was a straight line. With people, this is often not the case.


C) The Automotive industry in China is geographically scattered and very dynamic, with new OEMs popping out. There is a great range of variation in the needs, expectations and technical knowledge of the customers we serve. That poses an organizational challenge, whether it is at the communication, product development, or customer service levels. The only way to overcome those challenges is with a great team: we need people here to feel happy, to feel valued, to know that everyone is working in the same direction, that we are all aligned.


D) Never forget that technology is for people. Never ignore the human factor.


Juanjo Cardona

Editor at ChinaHRnews.com

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T: +86 21 6010 5000

E: j.cardona@directhr.cn