The Challenge (And Sheer Excitement) of Making The Move to Shanghai: My Interview with Blair Hildahl

14 Nov 2010 in Interviews

The clock is ticking past 7:30am. I’m in a hotel room in Shanghai. All-nighter. Flight to Hong Kong leaves this afternoon. Breakfast is at 9:00am. Meeting with Bill Morrow tonight. Why did I push myself to stay up? Simple. I couldn’t wait to bring you this interview that I did a few days ago here in Shanghai.

Specifically, because it’s a quick story of someone who dropped everything and moved to China to be a part of the stratospheric business growth happening here. Also, because we both shared a couple of experiences that took us by serious surprise here in China. Oh, and how awesome is the Shanghai skyline? Take a look at this:

Shanghai memories 45photo © 2006 Aapo Haapanen | more info (via: Wylio)

So, the man I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing is Blair Hildahl. Blair is the Director of Operations in Asia for X-nth. His story is complex. Initially he worked for Ground Floor Engineering, a company based in Orlando, Florida. During the financial crisis in 2008, the company’s founder had to let 29 of his 30 employees go. He kept one. He kept Blair.

Blair and his boss built the company back up until getting acquired by X-nth, an international consulting and engineering design firm servicing building industries in the US, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. In December 2009, X-nth merged with Trow Global. Integrating multiple companies post-merger is a very difficult process. And since the corporation has engineers all around the world, cultural and communication differences are a major challenge in that process.

Just 2 months ago in September, X-nth asked Blair to move to Shanghai. Blair was already married and had just moved back to his hometown in Wisconsin. X-nth wanted him to come to Asia to bridge the gap between the internationally disparate companies that Trow had merged with in the past few years.

The struggle to learn Chinese (Mandarin) is no easy task, and Blair admitted that he was far from fluent. Nevertheless, he took the challenge head on and made the decision to move (in fact, his wife took a job with X-nth as well!). In this interview, I asked him about the difficulties he’s faced since moving here and also about the ‘worksharing’ concept he’s helping to inject throughout the company.

*Note: Special thanks to my fellow Washington Semester Program student here in China with me, Sweden’s own Jonas Sohlin, who recorded the interview for me!

QUESTION: What do you think about making the move to Shanghai or somewhere else in China?

[March 7, 2011 UPDATE]: Unfortunately, I just had to remove the video of our interview. I’m really sorry. It was a fun conversation, however I shared most of the lessons in this post. If you’d like to know more about what we discussed in the video, leave a comment or send me a tweet!

  • Kevin Ko

    I haven’t been to China in a long time, but from what I know It’s definitely a lot easier for someone with technical ability, i.e. skilled engineers or devs from the west, as opposed to entrepreneurs from the west to settle down and start something in China. There’s a high entry level barrier if you’re not Chinese and if you don’t already have a lot of money. Manufacturers will love dealing with you as long as you can give them something to make but aside from that, it’d be tough for new western startups to compete in Chinese markets, acquire good partnerships and connections, etc. especially without a Chinese national on your team.

    Personally, I wouldn’t move to Shanghai because I prefer my California suburbs like Irvine, Palo Alto, etc. The ruckus of a big, crowded urban city isn’t too compatible with me :P

  • JohnExley

    Kevin my man, appreciate the insight. Engineers and developers are a scarcity almost everywhere it seems, so I agree with you. I’ve read most of Rebecca Fannin’s book “Silicon Dragon” and I’ve heard stories from guest speakers on my current trip through China – the dynamics of succeeding in the Chinese market as a western company are ultra complex. For one, I’d say being fluent in Mandarin is a non-negotiable requirement. For sure.

    Nevertheless, “very difficult” does not equate to “mission impossible”. With the right amount of persistence, experience, and combination of (as you rightly point out) locally knowledgeable and talented people, a western entrepreneur can enter the market and succeed.

    But: countries like Singapore and Chile are welcoming western entrepreneurs to their economies with open arms, and I think those markets might be a degree or two easier for western entrepreneurs to enter. Especially since Singapore’s national language is English.

    Great thoughts Kevin. We need to meet up in Irvine/Palo Alto one day soon. Can’t wait to catch up once I’m back from China.