Alumni International Career Perspectives: Japan/China TXT

Transcript for "Alumni International Career Perspectives: Japan/China" episode.

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Thank you for tuning into our third podcast series featuring Smeal alumni with international experience, supporting lifelong learning and business career development for alumni and friends of the Smeal College of Business. This series showcases the successful, diverse alumni who have launched careers throughout the world. Follow our three episodes releasing in mid-September, October, and November. 

And on November 13, at noon Eastern Standard Time, tune in for a live Lifelong Learning Webinar with supply chain alumna Meg Alderman, who is a manager consulting in supply chain for Deloitte Switzerland. The webinar is titled The Art of Starting Small, why Failing Fast May no Longer be an Option. Like our podcast episodes, Smeal Lifelong Learning webinars are free. 

I am your host Cindy Satterfield, Senior Programs Manager for Smeal Alumni Career Services. And I'm very excited to be working with alumni, showcasing their international careers which speak to the diversity of the Smeal network. Today I am talking with Terry Fry, a 1972 Smeal accounting alumnus, retired from a career at PPG Industries. Terry is still active in the business community and currently serves on the boards of Alpha Engineer Composites, Inc., and American Colors, Inc. 

Terry began his international transition at PPG in 1992 in Tokyo, Japan, where he developed an entry strategy for Asia. His career at PPG spanned over 42 years. And for the last 10 years, he lived in Shanghai, China. Terry retired as the Global General Manager for electronics and fiberglass in Asia-Pacific. 

Welcome, Terry. We are so excited to be talking with you today. It is fascinating to listen to our alumni stories that focus on international careers. Can you start out by telling us a little bit about yourself and your work story? 

Sure, Cindy. Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here. As you mentioned, I graduated with a degree in accounting. But I spent my first 20 years at PPG in various sales, marketing, and product management roles. My first international exposure was as a member of a integration team for a UK fiberglass company that we purchased in the late '80s. In 1990, I was asked to lead a team in an effort to form a Joint Venture, or JV, with a Japanese glass and fiberglass company. 

We were successful in negotiating agreements, but after a lot of work by both sides, both companies, we decided we couldn't move forward because the financial returns just weren't good enough for each company. But PPG still saw Asia-Pacific as a great opportunity and had just started the joint venture in Taiwan. So I was asked to relocate to PPG's Asia-Pacific headquarters in Tokyo. 

The electronics industry was growing, so we added two new furnaces at the JV. In 1997, I returned to the US to manage our electronics and specialty materials business unit, which included the JV in Taiwan. The JV expanded into China and became the global leader in fiberglass yarn for printed circuit boards. Over the next three years the circuit board industry gravitated to Asia. Almost all the production was located in Asia by that time. 

So in late 2003, I relocated to Shanghai, which had become our headquarters. We were positioned well in electronics, but we were not in products for reinforcing plastics, applications such as high pressure pipe, wind turbine blades. So we started a joint venture in 2005 with a Chinese state-owned company to manufacture these products, which were growing rapidly in China. 

We expanded the Taiwan JV factory three times in China before I retired in 2014. So it was a great experience, fun to be in a growth mode when so many industries were shrinking in the US. 

That's very exciting, Terry. You remind me of the current day entrepreneur by bringing innovation and growth to PPG in Asia. Your focus on the Asian market at PPG began around 1992. Did this become a goal of most companies at the time due to the opportunities opening in Asia-Pacific? 

Yeah certainly, many companies were focusing on Asia and saw the growth potential. But it was still early for China and India, a lot of obstacles there. PPG saw opportunities in our fiberglass business. So we built two China plants. And of course, we have a new fiberglass JV in Taiwan. We also had some chemical investments in Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, and mainland China. 

Technology and financial services companies were very active in the region. IBM had a very large presence in Japan. Automotive companies were still exploring. Volkswagen, to the best of my knowledge, was the only foreign auto company at that time in China. And the Japanese market was a difficult market for the auto companies to crack. 

OK. What made PPG so successful in their joint venture with the fiberglass producer in Taiwan, which led to the Chinese expansion? 

I'd say it was a combination of good technology from PPG, a partner with excellent operating skills, and they have a strategy of vertical integration. Our partner was Nan Ya Plastics, which is a main company in the Formosa Plastics Group, which is one of the largest industrial groups in Taiwan. Vertical integration was a large part of many of their businesses, and printed circuit boards are made from copper-clad laminate, which is comprised of fiberglass fabric, epoxy resin, and copper foil. 

So the joint venture supplied the fiberglass yarns used to weave the fabric. Nan Ya also produced the fabric, epoxy resin, copper foil, copper-clad laminate, and circuit boards. And the China expansion was all on a Nan Ya site. Everything that went into a circuit board was produced on that same site. 

So at one end of the site, we made fiberglass yarn. At the other end of the site, Nan Ya was making circuit boards and in between were all the other materials. It was a very, very low-cost model and one of the reasons that Nan Ya was able to grow in that industry, and we, of course, grew with it. 

OK let's talk culture. What are some of the cultural business differences between Asia and the US that make it harder to succeed? 

It varies across the region, but I would say a longer-term focus versus quarterly results is probably the biggest. That's changed somewhat in Japan, but the customers and employees still come before shareholders at many Japanese companies. Chinese companies, they're just in an all out growth and market-share mode, especially true for state-owned companies that receive a lot of government and bank support. 

So for American companies and trying to drive our quarterly results, we're competing against companies that just take a bit longer-term view, and that in many cases makes it very difficult to compete. 

Your career at PPG led you to live overseas in Tokyo, Japan, and Shanghai, China. I know you traveled to Asia before moving there, but what stood out more about the everyday culture once you moved to these cities? 

Well, I traveled to Japan many times before we moved, so there were not many surprises for me personally. But for my family, everything was new. One thing that I had not noticed before was that many older Japanese were not very comfortable around foreigners. Japanese society is very homogeneous, and that may be a part of the reason. There were a number of times an older Japanese, especially women, would choose to stand instead of taking a seat next to me on a train. And that sort of took me by surprise. 

Shanghai, on the other hand, what struck me was the chaos, just so many people moving in every direction and not really following any rules. China has a everyone-for-himself type culture, and obeying the rules in China did not really get you ahead all the time. That's changing, but it's still prevalent. Simply crossing the street is a challenge, even if there was a walk light. 

And the Chinese laws say, the cars are supposed to stop. No one stopped. And you had to be very careful. We used to say, traffic rules in China are only a suggestion. Cleanliness was also something of an issue there, even at some good restaurants. That was surprising to me. However, the Chinese people are very hardworking and industrious, great people, maybe the best entrepreneurs on the planet. If there is a way to make money, they'll find it. 

I like your description there. That was great. So you brought your family. And how did they react to these changes? Did they embrace them? Did they not want to go? Did they learn the language? Can you tell us a little about how your family adjusted? 

Well, of course, they were scared at first. My oldest son, Greg, was 13. My youngest son, Doug, was 11. And Greg graduated from high school at the American School in Japan. But one of his college essays and what he wrote about, sitting on the airplane in Detroit, and when they were taking off, will I ever see the United States again? So it was difficult for them. 

They had traveled a fair amount, but nothing like this. But once they got there, they just loved it. They really embraced the culture, the food, everything. And because Japan is so safe, they were able to move about the city on their own in public transportation, something that's a little more difficult to do in the United States, especially if you live in the suburbs. So they embraced it. 

When we moved back in 1997, as I said, Greg had graduated from high school, and Doug was still going into his junior year. And he didn't want to come back. He wanted to stay. And which we would have let him do if it would've been one year. But two years was too much, and so we wanted to bring them back. But they adjusted well, my wife, the same. She did a great job. 

She was a great expat wife because I was gone all the time. Any of the guys that at Asia jobs were gone a lot. And so she had to build her own life. And it's hard for the women, or men, for that matter, but most of it was skill wives that they've lost their support groups back here. Everything's new for them. Everything's difficult. 

And the kids, the kids go to school, and they make friends. But it's difficult for the spouses. 

Wow, kudos to your wife for doing a great job. 

Oh, I couldn't have done it-- I couldn't have done it without the whole family. 


Really good, expat family who just embraced where they were and what they were doing, and I could focus on my work instead of having to worry about that. 

Oh, that's wonderful. What a support system you had in place. What advice can you offer alumni seeking to eventually expand their career globally, specifically into Asia? 

Well, that's a difficult question to answer because it varies from company to company, depends a lot on one's current position. Like most career opportunities, having skills that differentiate someone the rest of the field is helpful. Language skills certainly stand out, especially for younger people. It wasn't an issue for me in my position. But if you're younger and looking for a job that's early on in your career, you're more likely going to require language skills than would it if you go there as an executive, which I did. 

Showing an ability to adapt to changing circumstances, relate to a broad range of people, learning to be able to listen, and being flexible, that says you're the type of person that can function in different cultures and work in cross-cultural environments. I would say try to stay abreast of current events. Understand what's going on in the region. Understand what your organization is doing outside the US. 

To this day, I still try to stay up on what's going on in Asia as best I can, because I have an interest in it, but I also have the experience of learning some of that firsthand. Make sure you express an interest in having a foreign assignment. Make sure when you're having reviews with your boss say, hey, this is what I would like to do. And just showing that you can function in that environment goes a long way. 

So we did talk a little bit about language in our past discussion. And can you tell us a little bit about how the kids adjusted as opposed to how you adjusted? And did you ever become fluent in Japanese or Chinese? And are there any tips for learning a language quickly? 

Well, no. I never became fluent in either language. I tried to learn enough to communicate my thoughts, function in daily life, get in a taxi and tell a taxi driver where I wanted to go, shopping, order in restaurants, and just some basic level of communication. 

In Japan, especially, it was very much appreciated that someone made an effort to learn their language, at least at some level. And the same in China, but I think Japanese were even more so. I studied with teachers. But achieving fluency just takes a lot of time and hard work. And I just didn't have that time. I was busy with my work, and in Japan with having my family. Our children weren't with us in China. 

So it was difficult to find that time. And working for an American company at an executive level, it just wasn't necessary. It was helpful to learn enough to get by, but it wasn't necessary for me to become fluent. And I don't really know of any shortcuts. I think some of the products that are out there like Rosetta Stone or some others-- there is one recently. I can't recall the name of it-- seemed to be pretty effective. 

One thing I did in Japan was, especially traveling there before we moved, was I would turn on local TV stations and just listen to the Japanese when I was doing other things just to have that sound. And it helps you develop that ear, which also then improves your ability to speak the language. 

Did you use an interpreter while you were there in your business dealings? 

We used interpreters quite often. It was really necessary to be able to move through issues and manage meetings in an effective manner versus trying to work through some limited language skills on either my part or the other side, the Chinese or the Japanese side. 

And it's important to have an interpreter versus what I would say a translator because you need someone to really understand the US language and culture well enough to interpret what you're trying to say. The words don't always translate directly, especially between Japanese and Chinese and English. So you need someone to be able to understand what your point is. 

And it takes longer. One of the things that I told the Alpha people when they are working on a joint venture in China, I said, plan on your meetings lasting twice as long as they would in the United States just because of the translation, the interpreting that's required. 

Yeah, it probably took a lot to make sure that both parties were understanding each other and the right message was coming across. 

Well, when you're speaking, as I think maybe mentioned earlier, even with an interpreter who has as a very good grasp of English, it it's still important to speak very clearly, slowly, try to avoid American colloquialisms and phrases, keep it very, very simple. I know when we were working on a joint venture in Japan, I learned that. And the Japanese said, we really appreciate you, Terry, speaking very slowly and clearly. That helps us understand much better than we could otherwise. 

Great. Very important to be communicating and understanding on both sides. Are there any business skills that you need to develop to be successful when making a career transition into a country like Japan or China? I know we've talked a little bit about the language. But what other things do you think are helpful? 

Well, in the technical sense of a business skill, no. Most skills apply wherever you are. But management styles are very different in China and Japan. So learning to adapt to those differences is very, very important. For example, both countries follow a hierarchical-type management system. 

In Japan, the boss works on trying to develop consensus. In China, it's the boss-knows-best. Don't question or challenge. I think the most important skills are the ability to listen, sensitivity to the culture, finding a way to do what you want to do with local support. 

Can you give us an example of how you worked one time to gain local support? 

Well, not in a specific way, but I can say the best way I found to gain local support was to involve the local management and staff in key decisions. Because of my experience in the business, I often knew what we needed to do because I had experienced it before. But trying to guide them to reach that same conclusion helped them feel a part of the decision. 

Also, there were many times we did something different based on what they thought of, so just inclusion, listening. Again, including, make them feel like they're part of the success of the organization. 

What concerns do Asians have about the environment? And are they making any progress towards improving pollution and sustainable practices? 

Well, like most people in the world, Asians are concerned about the environment. The trade-off of economic growth and jobs is a challenge, especially in China and in India. Japan has been making efforts to control pollution for a long time, but China, and less so India, are somewhat behind. Having said that, China has set very aggressive targets for renewable energy production and is, I believe, still the fastest growing wind-energy market in the world. 

They are already big and hydroelectric, and I think also a leader in solar. China's also trying to become a leader in electric cars. India has not been as aggressive in the development of renewable sources, but it is growing there as well. Part of the problem is that the pollution problem in these two countries is so massive and the populations are so large, it will take generations to fix. 

I think I'm correct in saying the US has the highest per capita carbon imprint in the world. So how do you tell the Chinese or the Indians that they can't have what Americans have? They can't live the way Americans live with two cars, and on and on? But I don't think the planet can handle almost three billion people consuming energy like we Americans do unless it's clean energy? 

That's definitely very insightful and food for thought with our changing climate. How is the workforce in Asia responding to the need for greater diversity, equality, and inclusion? 

Well, this is another issue that varies from country to country. Asian countries are similar to the West in that they are male-dominated. When I was based in Japan in the '90s, the college-educated females were serving tea at meetings and performing mostly just clerical jobs. And I think that's changed, but Japan is still male-dominated. China and India are actually a little bit better in that there are many high-level positions filled by females. But like everywhere, there's a long way to go. 

I don't think this is a priority for most Asian countries, Australia maybe being the exception. I think it's going to take a while for Japan, China, India, and Southeast Asia, Thailand, Vietnam, to get there. The US has a long way to go too. 

Yeah, sometimes it appears we're making strides, but often those strides are in reverse, like the saying, one step forward, two steps back. So moving on into world news, what do you think of the current trade war between China and the United States? 

It's a very difficult problem. I understand and agree with what the Trump administration is trying to achieve. As I mentioned earlier, the Chinese government's support for domestic companies amounts to unfair competition. But China is trying to catch the US and Europe in economic power, and they feel government support for many of their industries is essential to achieving that goal. Chinese economy needs to grow fast enough to provide job opportunities for the people. 

And I don't think I'm qualified to say whether or not tariffs are the best way to solve the problem, but keeping the pressure on China to change is a good thing. 

Another news item I've been reading about is the pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong. The protests have been going on for 11 consecutive weekends. Can you share some insights? 

Well, this is a very complex issue. And many Hong Kong people have seen how the Communist Party in China is increasing its control in mainland China and are concerned about losing some of the democratic rights they enjoy that mainland Chinese do not. The recent protests started because of an extradition deal with China. Well, it was actually with China and Taiwan that was proposed. The concern is that China would use this bill against political dissidents and have them extradited to China, where their court system is not nearly as open as it is in Hong Kong. 

However, it's now taken on a broader effort to achieve democratic reforms. And I don't see China allowing that to happen. I think most of us support the protesters' objectives, but certainly not the violence. And if they're not careful, the continuing destruction will hurt Hong Kong's economy. 

Just recently, China announced an effort. I didn't read a lot about it, but it involves Hong Kong, Macau and Shenzhen, which is a major city in southern China, Guangdong province, in some kind of an economic cooperation. They're trying to build a, almost a zone, if you will, and trying to bring in-- Hong Kong and Macau are closer to mainland China, so be able to influence their control of Hong Kong and Macau more than they do today. 

All right. Now you are retired and serve on two company boards. Can you share how you came to serve on those boards and if your international experience helped? 

Well, the American Colors chairman Jim Wible is a longtime friend of mine. And he was looking for someone with large manufacturing company and international experience. They have a China operation and are looking to expand in Europe. So yes, my international experience is something they value. 

Alpha Composites, on the other hand, contacted me, through a former customer of mine who serves on the board, specifically for my China experience. Alpha was in the process of doing a joint venture for the Chinese fiberglass company who I know very well, and they just wanted to get some advice on a number of issues. And we had a couple of meetings and talked through a lot of issues and dos and don'ts in the agreements. 

Then the chairman just said, well, you know, I think you can help us not only in China, but elsewhere. So he asked me to become a member of their board of advisors. 

So it's safe to say that having international experience, a different skill set, and a strong network can help those interested in serving on a board. 

Oh, most definitely. Our global economy becomes more interdependent every day. And that's not a profound statement. A lot of people know that. But just having a work experience outside the United States brings a different, and hopefully valued, perspective. 

So I mentioned how it changed my family to just look at look at the world differently and then think about different things. And so having that experience is certainly valuable, should be valuable, to most companies. 

Terry, can you tell us a little bit about any business trends you're following that you feel are important in today's job market? 

Well, I can't say I'm following any specific trends, just trying to stay abreast of what's going on. I think automation and AI, Artificial Intelligence, will have a significant impact on jobs. And that's not a profound statement, but I'm not sure we understand how big it will be and how fast it will happen. 

I read something recently about medical diagnosis, where in some case the accuracy of AI was significantly higher than humans. So if we follow the premise that technology expands exponentially, the idea that in the last 50 years, we've learned everything that they did in the history of time up until then. That 50 years ago, I mean, it's incredible how fast things are changing. 

So I think these two trends, the automation and AI, which go hand in hand, are going to have a huge impact a lot sooner than we think. 

There's definitely a need for lifelong learning to keep up with technology, along with all the other soft skills like creativity and critical thinking that have become so important to our career journeys. Onto the next question. I'm happy to say that not too long ago you visited Penn State and spoke to the International Business Association. What were some of the items you discussed with the students that would also be relevant to alumni listening today? 

Well, we discussed most of the topics of this podcast. What are the challenges of working overseas? What are the differences from the US? What kind of skills are required? The fun part was the interaction with the students and how interested they were. All the students came dressed like Wall Street bankers. I wore a sweater, navy blue, of course. 

Is there any other colors besides Penn State blue and white, especially during football season? 

Not that I know of. 

Smeal students are always well-dressed. It's something that stands out here in the business building, and you're not the first alumni who has noticed it. For the last question, on a personal note, I know you enjoyed your experience here at Penn State and were a swimmer. You also regularly come back to football games. What is your fondest memory here on campus? 

Well, I was only on the swimming team one year. I wasn't that competitive as I got older. Well, I was a member of a fraternity and many of those friendships are still strong today. I purchased a townhouse off East College Avenue a year or so ago primarily because four of my fraternity brothers also own properties in the same place. 

But Penn State is a great university. And the Smeal Business School, I mean, I was recognized as a leader in the country. And I'm very proud of that fact. 

Well, you certainly made Smeal proud, Terry. That's all the questions we have. Thank you, Terry, for taking the time out of your busy schedule and sharing your knowledge with us today. Your insight into an international career will be food for thought for many alumni seeking a global business experience in Asia. 

Smeal Alumni Career Services produces these online resources to promote lifelong learning, professional development, and help keep up on future business trends. All Lifelong Learning webinar and podcast recordings, along with more information about Smeal Alumni Career Services coaching and programs, can be found by visiting and clicking on the Alumni tab to find our website. Or please email us at Alumni Career Services at