Taking Care of Business
As Asia CEO of global construction materials giant Xella, Lei Jin ('02) is building his passion-driven career brick by brick.
High school years are a formative period for every teenager. Apart from stressful studies that culminate with the daunting college admissions process, there are other social and cultural challenges inherent in the third-culture kid experience.
For Lei Jin, these pressures came to a head in the summer of 2000 when he moved with his family to Beijing. Lei, who had just completed tenth grade in the US, felt isolated in his new surrounds at Lido apartments.
Not knowing anyone and with the start of school still days away, he headed to a local gym to unwind and shoot hoops.
- "I was by myself and there were half a dozen other guys playing a game. After about five minutes, they all came over to my side. I thought, 'Oh crap, they're going to beat me up; they must be territorial,'" he recalled.
However, Lei was greeted with smiles and handshakes from the "guys," who included brothers John and Jeremy Alexander, Ari Lee, Rezhan Majid, and Christian Bedard.
Seventeen years later, the friendship that started out on the basketball court is as strong as ever.
- "We're still best friends and try to meet up every year. They made the transition [to ISB] easy. On the first day of school, they showed me around and we hung out," said Lei.
- "I think that sums up the 'ISB experience'. People accept you with open arms because they know what it's like to move from school to school. It doesn't matter who you are or where you're from; you're part of the community."
Today, Lei is the one who brings people togethern in his role as the Asia CEO of German building materials company Xella Group. His role requires him to manage business in the world's fastest developing continent, where raw materials such as those manufactured by his company are in constant demand.
- "I think the biggest challenge that I face as an American-born Chinese is aligning communication styles and bridging those gaps. Even though there are a lot of similarities between myself and Chinese (stakeholders), there are a lot of differences, too," said Lei, who is based in Shanghai.
After graduating with a finance degree from Oklahoma State University in 2005, Lei worked as an analyst at IBM in Tulsa for a year. Realizing his passion was working with people and not "staring at a computer screen," he sought advice from his university's career services team and eventually applied at French building materials multinational Saint-Gobain.
After completing six months of full-salaried training in Boston, Lei braced himself for a mandatory North America posting – hopefully beyond Middle America.
- "I knew I didn't want to be in Boise, Idaho. I wanted to be in a big city where my value is. I lucked out, a lady left in Los Angeles so I went there," he said.
Lei didn't waste time making an impact in his industrial sales role, being named rookie of the year and cementing his place in the top 5 percent for sales.
Return to China
After learning Lei spoke Chinese, management posted him to Shanghai where he took on the role of business development manager. His company played an integral role in China's mammoth railway expansion by providing railgrinding stones, which are used to smooth rail tracks.
Lei was charged with establishing distribution channels and working with local officials. For a 26-year-old, building guanxi (personal connections) among stakeholders on projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars was a huge step up.
- "I didn't know anything. I knew I probably had to a lot of drinking," he laughed.
- "I was lucky because the company already had teams across China. My job was to go with the local guys and visit local bureaus. As the OEM (original equipment manufacturer), we provided after-sales service and technical support."
Having been in his current role at Xella for just over a year, Lei considers himself fortunate to be pursuing his passion as a professional.
- "I'm generally fascinated by business. I like doing business not because of money, but because it's fun, challenging, and interesting," he said.