Storyworth: What the Farthest You’ve Ever Travelled

| May 14, 2022 | 0 Comments

In 2007, I was a public affairs consultant working at FleishmanHillard, a global PR firm based in St. Louis.  The company had offices all over the world, including China and Hong Kong.  I was contacted by the Hong Kong office to help with a client of theirs called Huawei.  Huawei is pretty well known now, but nobody in the U.S. (outside of the intelligence community) had ever heard of them.  The company made the guts of the wireless telecommunications system and were’ hoping to enter the American market.  They were in the process of partnering the American investment company called Bain & Company to acquire an American company called 3Comm.  Little did I know that this project would launch me on a seven year global adventure that would provide me both the highlights and lowlights of my professional career.

My recollection is that, in 2007, Huawei had a market cap of about $30 billion dollars.  Their customers were mobile phone companies in the third world, mostly Latin America and Africa.  The had achieved a breakthrough with British Telecomm which was their first entre’ into the industrialized world.  But the U.S. was the big prize.

Today, Huawei’s market cap is $150 billion, even though the never cracked the U.S. market, mostly because the U.S. government has always believed that Huawei is a nest of spies.  Honestly, I never saw evidence that they were a threat to the U.S.   In my view, then and still, they just wanted to make as much money as possible.  Getting caught spying on the United States would threaten this primary goal, so I don’t believe they did it.

In any event, the answer to this chapter’s question is that, China is the farthest I’ve ever traveled, thanks to Huawei.  Their headquarters are in Shenzhen, which is just over the border from Hong Kong into mainland China.   I would go to HQ about once a year, but I also have been to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tsinghau and other cities along the coast.  Regrettably, I never got to the interior of China, but I loved going there as a “business consultant.”  Huawei was a very challenging client and have no doubt that FleishmanHillard lost hundreds of thousands of dollars chasing them.  Much of that was to pay my business class travel for me to pitch them, over and over again.

I even got FH to fund an effort to create a “Global China Practice” using what we’d learned chasing Huawei to recruit other Chinese companies as clients.  That project also gave me a number of opportunities to visit China.  Unfortunately, we didn’t sign up many clients. In fact, we only secured one, a company called Wanda to help them with their acquisition of AMC Theaters.  The company was led by a man named Wang Jianlin, who at the time was the richest man in Asia.   Here I am with him in the presidential suite in his hotel in Beijing.

As often happens to “the richest man in China,” whose identity changes from year to year, he got crosswise with the Chinese government and hasn’t be heard from in a number of years.  Last I heard, he’s lost $32 billion and is struggling to hang on to his company.

My favorite story about my time working with Huawei actually took place in California at Pebble Beach’s Spanish Ballroom.  I was there to attend the annual fundraising dinner for the Panetta Institute, an education foundation whose mission was to encourage and prepare young people to public service.  It was founded by former congressman, CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta.   When he retired from Congress, he not only launched the Institute, he also served on FleishmanHillard’s International Board of Advisors.  He left FH when he went back into government as Barack Obama’s CIA Director.  For pretty obvious reasons, FH did what they could to maintain a good relationship with Panetta, which meant buying a table at this fundraiser every year.

I was asked to attend the 2010 dinner and was invited to bring client along.  At the time, I only had one client, Huawei.  Recognizing that bringing a Chinese company suspected of spying against the U.S. to an event hosted by the CIA Director might be a bit bold, we called Leon’s wife, Sylvia, and asked if I could bring a representative of the company.  Surprisingly, she said “Yes.”

So, I brought my client, Charlie Chen.   He’s a small, polite and self-effacing guy who ran Huawei’s Plano, TX offices, their American headquarters.  Charlie was – and is – a good friend.  Today, he has retired from Huawei and lives in Chicago with his wife and two kids where, among other things, he convenes regular Christian prayer meetings in his home.  But I digress.

So, there we were, Charlie and me, in our tuxes, at the pre-dinner reception at the lush Spanish ballroom, mingling with the hoi polloi.  I spotted Leon, who I’d gotten to know at FH, and elbowed my way to him to introduce him to Charlie.    When I got to him, I said, “Hi, Leon.  Can I introduce you to my client?”

He said, “Sure!”

I said, “This is Charlie Chen.” 

They shook hands and Leon said, “Who are you with?”

Charlie said, “Huawei.  Have you heard of us?”

Leon reeled back and laughed uproariously and said loudly, “Have I heard of Huawei?!! Are you kidding? I’m the head of the CIA! Of course, I’ve heard of Huawei!” Then, made a bee-line across the reception to establish some distance between himself and this national security risk.


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