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Who do the world’s most powerful CEOs turn to when they need advice? Dominique Turpin would be high on the list.
From 2010 until 2016, Turpin served as president of Switzerland’s International Institute for Management Development (IMD), whose MBA program regularly ranks among the world’s best. The French-born—“OK, nobody’s perfect,” he shrugs—consultant and management educator has worked with many of the world’s top companies, including Coca-Cola, Danone, Jardine Matheson, Nestlé, Novo Nordisk, Philips and Uponor.
In September 2022, Turpin accepted a new post as president of the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), based in Shanghai. For Turpin, it’s a welcome return to a continent that has long fascinated him; he earned a doctorate in economics from Sophia University in Tokyo in 1986 and has written several books on Japanese business culture.
CEIBS was established in 1994 as a joint venture between the Chinese government and E.U. to foster business ties and understanding between Asia and Europe. Yet in recent years geopolitics and the pandemic have rendered that laudable mission statement even more challenging. TIME sat down with Turpin in Singapore to talk about his goals for the school, frictions between the East and West, the health of China’s economy, and the future of marketing.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You’ve just returned from the U.S. where you met with the deans of Harvard, Wharton, and MIT among several other top schools. What were your aims and takeaways from that trip?
We used to have good connections with U.S. schools [before the pandemic]. Our students would have one module in Africa, one in Europe, and one in the U.S. So we want to rebuild that. But what was interesting [was] when I talked to some of these deans in the United States, one of them said, ‘you know, we're under pressure from the American government to reduce activities in China. But we're not going to do that. On the contrary, when you have this tension, it's our role to bring more mutual understanding.’ So I think this is a role that business has to play.
You taught at IMD for 30 years. How does its mission statement differ from your role at CEIBS?
IMD was started by industry to serve industry. At CEIBS, what I think we can offer to the world is a different perspective. What is interesting is that when I was in the United States last week, compared with when I visited a private bank a few days ago in Geneva, or here [in Singapore], you get a different perspective on China. And I was amazed by the very negative feeling toward China in the United States. But when you're in China, and you hear different arguments, such as: how many military bases do the Americans have around the world? So we must try to have a better balance.
I imagine that CEIBS is not just about teaching Chinese executives Western business strategy. Presumably there’s lots that American executives can also learn from their Chinese peers?
There are a lot of interesting things happening in China, even though there is a rebalancing to the public sector from the private sector. I've met a lot of super interesting companies with great global growth potential. For example, I was in Shenzhen last month and visited a company called Hofan. To me, this is the ultimate marketing company. Because the purpose of marketing is to create, communicate, and deliver value to customers. And you do this by solving problems. Now, this company goes on social media and reads all the comments by consumers. They take this feedback to some Chinese company and say, ‘hey, you need to solve this problem.’ They even have a venture capital firm to help the company fund the development and then they market these products. To me, this is your ultimate marketing machine. So when it comes to understanding customer needs, yes, as a marketing professor there's some interesting things to look at [in China].
Is it fair to say that Chinese companies are more paternalistic, more top down, and don't take advice as much from outside? For instance, they’re more reluctant to bring in consultants like PWC or Deloitte compared with American firms.
This part of the world is driven by Confucian values. I went to Japan for the very first time in 1978 and the economic development of China is not very different from what we have seen in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. There is a certain pattern moving from low value, adding products and services to [higher-value]. The difference with China is scale.
China is facing some economic turbulence right now. How concerned are you?
The big issue right now is unemployment and also the real estate issue. And what is interesting is that the Chinese middle class sacrifice a lot to do two things: to buy an apartment, because it's a kind of safety net, and to educate their children. This phenomenon is quite worrying because … as long as the economy goes well people are less inclined to speak politics. But if it doesn’t, this could be very worrying for China. At the same time, 2022 was the best year ever for Chinese exports. So you have to put everything into perspective.
CEIBS is a joint venture between the E.U. and the Chinese government. But in 2019 the E.U. declared China a “systemic rival.” That must make your job harder?
For me, ‘Europe’ does not exist. Germany has bet heavily on both China and Russia. If you look at a company like BMW, or Volkswagen, I think [33% in fiscal year 2022] of BMW’s global sales were in China. If you look at the French, they are less dependent on China. And this is why Europe is somewhat divided—because the German Chancellor is saying, ‘let's not be too hard on the Chinese,’ because they have their own interests. The French sell wines and cosmetics and Louis Vuitton bags, but they are less dependent on the Chinese market than the Germans.
The other thing, of course, is that China represents 40% of global trade. So imagine, a slowdown on the Chinese economy today will have repercussions on Africa, for example, because they are buying raw materials. You know, 5% of the growth of Africa today is coming from trade with China. So, China is important to the world.
When you first came to CEIBS you talked about opening a U.S. campus. Is that still the plan?
Well, it’s sensitive. Because it's a [joint-venture] I cannot take a decision alone. And the Chinese tend to be very prudent, want a low profile. It’s political. If you follow what happened in Hungary, where [Fudan] University wanted to open a campus, it went into the newspapers, and then the citizens [protested]. Losing face could be another factor.
Your specialty is marketing. But how do businesses stay ahead when digital marketing—like the recent advances by AI and TikTok—evolve so quickly? At the same time, you've got marketing professors teaching the same lectures year after year. It seems like the value of the business school is almost diminished?
You have a point. When I was at IMD, Coca-Cola got in touch about creating a chair and some research on digital marketing. In Lausanne, Switzerland, I'm 500 miles away from Philip Morris International quarters and 10 km away from Nestle. So I went to see the global CMO of Nestle and the CEO of Philip Morris. They laughed at me and said, “you guys are too slow! By the time you do your research and you polish your papers” [because things have moved on]. So the ones who are eating our lunch are the consultants when you look at digital transformation.
On the other hand, the mission of marketing has not changed: create value for customers. Marketing professors really don't talk so much about the needs and wants of customers, because in modern economies people don't know what they want. Nobody wrote an email to Steve Jobs [saying]: “I want an iPhone or an iPad.” The word I personally use is: what are your customers' headaches? The world is not short of headaches, but what has changed dramatically are the [marketing] tools.
What are some business challenges that might not get sufficient attention?
I was talking to a top guy at Nestle about diversity, which is another big buzzword these days. And he said there is one element of diversity that is critical to us but nobody talks about: the age pyramid. Today, 20-year-olds when they join Nestle go straight into the job. I mean, 20 years ago you would send them to sell ice cream in Brazil for six months. Today, you have a 20-year-old who is highly specialized in all these digital tools. And you won't find the global chief marketing officer in a big corporation who is under 45—and we want to push for later retirements! So how do you bring all these generations of people in the company together? That’s another challenge.
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Write to Charlie Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org