Last Word

Cool Iron lady

Updated: 2011-05-20 11:18

By Zhang Lei (China Daily European Weekly)

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Cool Iron lady

The 57-year-old, who is also Gree's vice-chairwoman, is no shrinking violet when it comes to pushing the company, its technical expertise and her own ability.

She has often been quoted in Chinese newspapers as saying: "I never admit mistakes and I am always correct."

Such words have given Dong the reputation of being over-confident, and someone who has never thought being a woman has held her back.

Dong agrees. "Femininity in the business world is the equivalent of admitting women are weak," she says.

"One could ask forgiveness and tolerance out of it.

"I don't think this is real leadership. True leaders face the same task, whether you are a man or a woman."

Dong was born in Nanjing, East China's Jiangsu province, to what she describes as an "average family".

After high school, she went to the neighboring Anhui province to study at the Wuhu Institute of Cadre Education in 1975, and upon graduation found a job in Nanjing as an administrative assistant.

Shortly after, she got married and gave birth to a son in 1982. Her husband died two years later.

In 1990, she quit her Nanjing job and, placing her son under the care of his grandmother, went to South China's Guangdong province and found a job in Shenzhen.

Within a year, she changed jobs and joined Gree as a saleswoman at its head office in Zhuhai, a city near Macao, about 65 km from Shenzhen.

Her assignment was to look after sales in Anhui province where she proved to be highly successful.

In 1992, for example, her sales revenue reached 16 million yuan, an eighth of the company's total sales revenue that year.

This led her to being relocated to Nanjing in an attempt to boost sales of Gree air conditioners where the company's market share was very small.

Again, success came and within a year had received a 2 million yuan order; her total sales hit 36.5 million yuan.

Promotions followed. She was made manager of the sales department in 1994 and vice-general manager in 1996 before being picked to head the company in 2001.

But this success hasn't come without sacrifices as the business has taken up much of her life and even her spare time.

For instance, she could not spend much time with her son, who is now 29, when he was growing up.

"You really can't do very well in business and run a family, too," she says.

Dong runs her multibillion yuan air-conditioning empire - the company made 60.8 billion yuan last year, up 42.6 percent from 2009 - from her sixth floor office in Zhuhai.

From there, decisions regarding overseas expansion plans, especially to the United States, are made, although Dong could not be drawn into giving details. Gree has factories in Vietnam, Pakistan and Brazil.

"Overseas expansion is just like what we do on technical research. We have to spend a lot of time on it to decide the feasibility," she says.

"And before we make it, we won't do much advertising to the outside.

"We don't make mindless plans that cannot be achieved within a definite time schedule. It is irresponsible to hype your product and your business plans before you realize it."

This underlines the resolution of a woman who is meticulous in examining every aspect of her plans, and for keeping Gree ahead of its competitors.

Dong, with a sharp jawline that has sometimes been interpreted as her fierceness, has been dubbed the "Iron Lady" of China's business circles.

She rarely smiles at her employees, and she buries herself in meetings and conferences. She works incessantly and hasn't had a single holiday in the past 20 years.

So, will retirement be difficult for her?

"I don't think so," she says. "I think I will retire peacefully and gracefully when that day comes. As I am in a position to lead a company, I have to shoulder the responsibilities that connect many people.

"If I retire, I will change my role, and I would then enjoy the role that is presented to me.

"I get fulfillment from being president (of Gree). When I retire, I have other goals to pursue."

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