Bratislava Moscow Tianjin: an interview with Andrea Chudá, Head of Sales at Home Credit China for Forbes Slovakia
By Jaroslav Mašek; the original article appeared in Forbes Slovakia
When we met for the first time, Andrea Chudá was sitting in a corner office on the 31st floor of Home Credit’s Chinese headquarters in Tianjin and she was, shall we say, in her current home environment. Now in the third year in her position, she has been helming the business expansion of an important part of Home Credit, the installment sales business and the ‘golden egg’ among the assets of Petr Kellner, the wealthiest Czech and his PPF Group, from the city of fifteen million inhabitants some 170 km south of Beijing. The company is the leader of China’s non-bank credit market, has been there since the entire local installment sector started forming, and Forbes got to take a peek into its Asian business last summer. It’s a really big business! Just a few figures to kick off: Andrea Chudá comes from Bratislava, got her career start at ČSOB Poisťovňa, and currently leads a team of 50,000 sales people working in 290 cities larger than Prague, who make some 6,000 new contracts every hour.
How many people do you manage?
I manage about 45,000 right now. If this article is issued in February, by then there will be about four thousand more (laughs).
How many were there a year ago?
There were 24,000.
How can you manage 50,000 Chinese credit salespeople while tackling such a rapid growth?
We try everything. There are five managerial levels between me and the salesperson who meets the customer, but we increasingly use direct communication channels for easier information transfer. With this many people, the biggest challenge is making sure that any information, whether positive or negative, reaches the highest-positioned person as accurate as it can. No important details must be lost because even a small distortion can cause a lot of trouble. Our salespeople need to understand the products in detail to sell them well. So, in addition to them, we have 300 coaches who focus on newly recruited employees while training our existing staff on an ongoing basis.
That is the technical side of it. How can you manage it in human terms?
Well, it’s like an army. A company, which will have more than 60,000 people this year, is seen as big even by Chinese standards. You cannot think about it too much, and you need to rely on a stable and well-built structure. It is important to watch the quality of the employees you promote. One’s career can move on very fast with such a number of employees on board. This is especially true since we recruit an average of five thousand people while two and a half thousand leave every month.
Why do so many people leave?
The Chinese often have no idea of what the job is about. Consumer credit has no tradition there; in fact we are building an entire industry. They often realize that this type of work does not suit them. You need to be genial and actually sell. That’s not common in China. When you come to a shop there are many shop assistants there but no one will address you actively. At best, they will shuffle behind your back, which is not very pleasant (laughs). This is why we use recruitment videos now to give job applicants an idea what the job is like and let them decide in good time. Of course, competitors lure some people over, and with our training they automatically place them in managerial positions. That’s the price we pay for our success. But we obviously try to limit departures as much as we can, and we have been successful. When I came onboard, twice as many people left every month.
What was the biggest surprise for you after you came in?
When you say ‘China’, I guess everybody imagines the ancient wisdom, culture, Feng Shui, and a balanced approach to life. Reality is a little different, however. The single child culture and schools based on simple repetition (memorizing) severely suppress natural creativity and the ability to bring forth ideas. People often wait for instructions on how to do things and their tasks. That may be the biggest managerial culture shock you have to go through as a European. Team discussions on how to achieve a goal are not common in the local culture, not least because you ‘never oppose your boss’. When I asked one of my subordinates how we could improve sales in his region and what he would recommend, he sat up in the armchair and almost shouted: ‘Whatever you say, boss!’
What can you do about it?
You need to constantly encourage people to think about things, not be afraid to voice their opinions and avoid coming and asking you for the solution. There is a proverb in Slovakia that says something like ‘if you don’t do anything, you won’t ruin anything’. That approach is popular in China too.
Reportedly, the Chinese really hate admitting mistakes. Is this just their way of protecting themselves from disappointing others?
Yes, the old cliché says that they should not ‘lose face’. But it really looks like that. They don’t want to show too much among their co-workers for fear of being ridiculed or saying something wrong. But we’ve had some success in improving this; we are working on communication between people. We had soccer tables installed in the offices and encourage any activity that breaks the ice.
Do you do anything like teambuilding?
We do, though the first time we did it was a bit of a shock. We went to the mountains, which in China means climbing up a concrete path with loudspeakers on the sides playing music. It was organized by a local agency that thought they knew what teambuilding meant. But the very first stop was a game where people in lower positions were supposed to repeat a long sentence after a guy in uniform and sunglasses, staring into his sunglasses, and whenever they made a mistake they had to start over again. When one colleague was doing this for maybe the thirtieth time, I could not stand it anymore and we quit working with the agency.
What is the type of motivation that one should go to China with?
You need to be interested in the culture, in the entire country, and you need the ambition to achieve something. Then it gets the proper taste of adventure. Most importantly, I don’t recommend anyone to go abroad running away from their problems, whatever they may be, be it to China or to the other side of the globe. In the end, you’ll only discover yourself and your issues. You need the appetite to use your experience and skills under completely different circumstances – not just at home, among people you have known for ten or fifteen years in your home environment. This includes an entirely different economic situation. China is rising rapidly, but you will also find much bigger differences between the rich and the poor, between people with different education, than anywhere in Europe.
You ran away from insurance, didn’t you?
Just a little bit. When headhunters in London approached me in early 2008, I had ten years of experience in Bratislava at ČSOB Poisťovňa and I wanted a change. They offered me Russia. I was excited. Just about everybody else wanted to go west but I thought Moscow would be more interesting. I worked at Boris Jordan’s Renaissance Insurance Group where I was in charge of retail and corporate clients. The primary goal was getting the company into the black.
What is it like working with a Russian oligarch?
It was a shock coming from ČSOB, which is part of KBC where anything was approved by two or three committees and one decision took months to make, to a group where Boris Jordan would make decisions overnight. He would say: ‘This will apply from tomorrow on.’ And the entire company had to make it work. It was almost liberating. In fact, I originally came in just to manage the retail part of the insurer, but after six months, Boris told me that I was taking over corporate clients as well, as he had just sacked the head of the division. So I worked for 14 to 16 hours a day for a year and a half, and in the end I helped the company make a profit, effectively fulfilling my obligations. And I did that despite the crisis of 2009, which came to Russia somewhat later.
You eventually built your own business in Moscow.
At the time, I saw a market niche for building a virtual insurance broker, in fact a big web portal that would compare offers from the various insurers in the market and enable the conclusion of policies online. There was nothing like that at the time, although there were 200 insurance companies in Moscow alone and their prices differed a lot. The perfect environment for my project. So a colleague and I started a “Greenfield” Cypriot company focusing mainly on comparing motor damage policies and we got it off the ground. We sold it after a year and a half, once it started making an operating profit.
You have both managerial and entrepreneurial experience. What did entrepreneurship give you?
I proved to myself that I could build a company, but I also realized that I am not the one to do small start-ups. It may sound weird in an era that loves start-ups, but the culture of big corporations suits me better. I love working with experienced people and I find it more enriching. I simply prefer the world of high ambitions and high heels (laughs). Despite the sometimes unnecessary meetings and lengthy decision-making processes like I knew at KBC.
How much did you sell your firm for? Are we talking, like, tens of millions of crowns?
We agreed not to disclose the price, but it is in that range. Truth be told, that was the first time I felt like I had money enough in my account and wanted to take some time off and enjoy life a bit. But, after a few weeks in Jamaica, an offer came from PPF; they were looking for someone to help them out with concentrating two insurers in Romania. The idea of doing something new again intrigued me. When I came to Romania for the first time, I found a young team of motivated execs and that made me change my plans finally. I stayed there for two and a half years eventually.
Did you manage the local insurance company?
No. I was the sales director, as usual. Actually, aside from my own business, I never held the highest position. I don’t think I would be a good CEO, anyway.
I’m a perfectionist. I guess I would torture myself and everybody around me to death. To be a good chief executive, you really need a lot of perspective and some distance. Even though you know that something is not perfect, you need the strength to let it go, and I am not good at this yet. I feel the need to understand everything and control everything too much.
So are you only torturing sales for now?
Yes, just those 60,000 people who have to stick it out (laughs).
Did you take a sabbatical after Romania?
Yes. I took a year off. I felt I’d had enough of being a manager, and I wanted to be a good friend, aunt and daughter for some time. I needed that after 15 years in the insurance industry. When it came to the question of what my sabbatical would end with, I left that question open; only I didn’t want to go back to that sector. In the end, I was choosing between telecoms in India and Home Credit in China. I was interested in the Asian culture; I didn’t want to be in Europe anymore. My experience with PPF was good and I was interested in China, so the choice was obvious.
What did the year off give you? Many think – or rather dream – about it; what good is it really?
I got a little bored after the first two months. My apartment was remodeled, my holidays were over and I felt an itch again. But I eventually stuck the one-year pause out as planned. I did it consciously for the sake of my inner motivation, so that I would really want to work with full commitment again. I do not like abrupt changes where you leave a firm one day and join another the next. If you take your job seriously – and I always do – then there is no way your head isn’t brimming with problems from the previous job, and you cannot just turn them off like with a switch. I didn’t meditate or study; instead I focused on strengthening and renewing the relations that I had neglected due to work. Sometimes you have to give energy back to those close to you.
What does your normal working week in China look like now?
I come to my office at nine and leave at about eight pm. I take work home with me, too. If you want to meet trade partners in China, you need to travel. You can use the comfortable high speed trains for distances of up to three or four hours, which is up to about 800 kilometers; above that you have to fly. But flying is much less comfortable and more time-consuming.
What did working in China give you?
The feeling that I can tackle anything now (laughs).
Is it really that bad?
No, it’s not, honestly. But that’s what you feel like if you look back a bit. Looking at the problems you had to go through not just at work but at home as well; in a country where nobody speaks English, where the environment is not good and where a few lessons of Chinese mean nothing because the tone is the most important part of your speaking and you can never get that right even though you know the right word. But all of this obviously makes you stronger, which is also why working abroad is so attractive.
Is the air really that bad in China?
It is in the industrial regions. The only exercise you can do there is golf or yoga. You don’t want to get out of breath. You can’t usually just go jogging. There are many manufacturing plants around Tianjin and in the Beijing region in general, and monitoring air quality using an application is the primary entertainment among expats. Tianjin is close to the ocean but winds usually blow from the continent, so it chokes on its own smog. When a low occurs, the visibility is lower than ten meters. You can try to avoid walking outside, you can have air cleaners installed in offices and at home, but you cannot live in a greenhouse all the time.
What have you sacrificed for your professional adventure?
Relationships suffer, of course. When you are on the other side of the globe working 12 hours a day, all you have time for is just a few e-mails or Skype with family and friends. And I see what you mean: Yes, I am single and childless.
How much longer will your contract with Home Credit last?
It’s for at least one more year. I want to complete it; we are getting results and I hope the shareholders and the management team are happy (ed. note: Home Credit China provided credit worth 4.4 billion Euros in the first three quarters of last year and grew by 174% year-on-year in terms of volume). The huge size of Home Credit in China is a motivation on its own. You really cannot experience something like this elsewhere. Doubling the volumes, investing – I love that.
What if you go on loving it?
That could happen. I have a somewhat adventurous nature, though, so there may be something new that I’ll find attractive. I like building things and solving problems; I am not the ‘caretaker’ type of manager.
What are your plans in China for 2017?
We will keep increasing the number of our sales force. That is, from about 45,000 to 65,000 at the end of this year. Last year, we opened branches in thirty new cities, so we are present in 290 cities now. By the way, with about 1.5 million citizens each, they are all bigger than Prague. This year, we want to focus on strengthening our presence there, rather than expanding into smaller places. We negotiate with merchants who let us set up our credit points of sale in their shops, because they see this as another opportunity for boosting their sales. In addition, we are launching contracts made without paper. We have handed out 40,000 tablets to our salespeople (ed. note: the tablets were tailor-made as OEM for Home Credit); the tablets run a program which guides the salespeople through completing new contracts. Those are then sent to the headquarters for approval. Simply put, we have to solidify our market leader position and move on to the next league again.
Considering the amount of contracts and people, does less paper mean fewer mistakes?
Precisely. There is no paper, there are no mistakes and no trees are felled.