A former P&G executive leaves corporate life to teach, study, and travel his way to a new career.
After nearly 30 rewarding years living and working all over the world with the Procter and Gamble Co. (P&G), I recently retired to fulfill a personal ambition to return to China. One of the most stimulating experiences of my professional and personal life at P&G was the four years (2005-08) that I spent in China. That is why I have now returned to spend a year teaching business students, learning Mandarin, and travelling extensively to immerse myself in China’s culture and heritage.
My last three years at P&G, as the company’s global external relations officer, was an incredible experience, working globally as a catalyst and connector between the company and our stakeholders. My top priority was to reinvent P&G’s external relations organization to build and protect P&G’s reputation and business for the next decade and beyond. With this accomplished—after launching P&G’s newest function, communications, in July 2012—I closed the P&G chapter of my life to return to China for a year. After this year in China, I hope to turn a new career page to connect businesses, academic institutions, and non-profit organizations around the world, with a strong focus on China-US connections.
As a starting point for this new chapter, in September I began a nine-month executive-in-residence role at Sun Yatsen University (SYSU), one of China’s top business schools. My life as a professor and a Mandarin student, living and working on the SYSU south campus in Guangzhou, Guangdong is a world away from my life in Cincinnati, Ohio working in the C-suite at P&G.
As an honorary professor, I teach students in the marketing, MBA and executive MBA programs about multinational company operations in China, brand building, crisis management, corporate social responsibility, and corporate and brand communications. While some of these students are undergraduates, most are studying for their advanced degree in business or marketing. The majority are Chinese, however, a significant number are exchange students from other countries who spend a semester at SYSU. The school is attracting increasing numbers of foreign students after it moved up in the Financial Times’ global business school rankings. MBA students must have at least three years of work experience with a Chinese company or a multinational company operating in China. All of the undergraduates and MBA students have impressive English language skills, so my lectures are in English with no translation needed. The EMBA program, ranked 11th globally by the Financial Times, caters to mature students with a decade or more of deep business experience in a Chinese company, and many of these “students” own their own company. A consistent factor across this broad range of students is a thirst for knowledge and for integrating the best of Chinese and Western business wisdom.
Founded in 1924, the SYSU south campus where I live and usually teach is the oldest of the university’s five campuses. It is a tranquil haven away from the frenetic pace of Guangzhou. The campus is a massive tropical garden interspersed with the university’s original brick buildings and modern buildings such as the business school where my office and on-campus apartment are located.
Like many faculty and students I bike around campus, which is the quickest and coolest way to get around in Guangzhou’s hot and humid climate. To get around the city I mostly use Guangzhou’s very efficient subway system. As part of the major infrastructure investments for the 2010 Asian Games, the subway was expanded to eight lines, and connects all of the commercial hubs and cultural areas, the city’s three train stations and airport. I occasionally use taxis but with my still rudimentary Mandarin skills, it’s sometimes difficult for the driver to understand where I want to go.
By design, my part-time teaching arrangement allows me to travel extensively throughout China. While working at P&G in China, I was able to travel extensively to work with the China Youth Development Foundation to build 200 P&G Hope Schools in rural areas, and to work with P&G’s sales and market research organizations around the country. My personal travels now enable me to continue learning about China and stay in touch with the rapid changes throughout the country. One of my personal goals this year is to complete visiting all of China’s 33 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions. In October I traveled to Ningxia, a mostly rural and arid province in the far west—the 28th province that I have visited. I also climbed Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) in Anhui province, said to be China’s most beautiful mountain. During my time here I have plans to visit the remaining five provinces and many other places in China. China is a vast, diverse country and in some ways is more like a continent. Having hands-on knowledge of the full range of regional, cultural, historical and economic difference across the country will help me do business with local and international companies operating in China.
Chris Hassall, Ph.D. is an honorary professor of marketing at Sun Yat-sen University Business School in Guangzhou. He worked in a variety of positions for almost 30 years at P&G, most recently serving as the company’s global external relations officer. This is the first of a series of articles he will write about his years teaching, studying, and traveling in China.