In this interview, we talked with UM alum Thomas Stanley who tells us about his career trajectory in Greater China, from teaching English in Taiwan to being a Partner and National Markets COO with KPMG in Shanghai.
LRCCS: Where did you grow up?
Stanley: In a number of different places, mostly in Michigan. I also spent 5 years in the UK; my family’s always been spread out. Then I came to Ann Arbor and UM not as a Chinese major, but took Chinese 101 with Professor Hilda Tao and was fascinated by it. She was a great teacher but I wanted to take my language to the next level by traveling to China.
LRCCS: So you did a study abroad?
Stanley: Right, that was my junior year, and there weren’t really any UM programs in Mainland China at that time. So I transferred to the University of Massachusetts for a year to do a study abroad program, and did an intensive summer in Taiwan then a full academic year in Beijing.
LRCCS: Woah, that’s a deep dive
Stanley: It was. The funny thing was, after Taiwan I thought, I’m getting the hang of this, Mainland China will be no problem. But it was much more challenging than I’d anticipated. We were traveling to Beijing from Guangzhou by train and I remember at the train station our team lead said to us, “The good news is everyone’s got a ticket. The bad news is they were out of sleeper berths.” So we had hard seats, and some of us didn’t even have seats. That was our introduction to China.
LRCCS: Quite a warm welcome. What year was this?
Stanley: ’86 – ’87. The ball of Reform and Opening was just getting rolling in Beijing at that time – it was all brand new. They had just gotten rid of the rationing coupons. And when I go back to Beijing, there’s almost nothing now that’s the same.
When we got to Beijing, the first thing we did was organize bicycles. There were almost no cars – some public buses, cabs, etc. It was very quiet – you’d roam around the streets and just hear the tinkling of bicycle bells.
LRCCS: So what happened after undergrad?
Stanley: This wasn’t a great time to be looking for jobs, so I bought a ticket to Taiwan and got a job teaching English. After about a year there I got a full-time job with KPMG.
LRCCS: Had you studied consulting or anything like that?
Stanley: No. It was a fascinating experience; I was hired as their English editor and reviewed every client-facing document that they produced in English.
LRCCS: This was the late 80s? What did KPMG look like in Taiwan back then?
Stanley: The Taiwanese economy was really going gangbusters, one of the emerging Asian tigers. The company had about 300 employees in Taiwan at the time. And after a while I realized I needed to supplement what I’d studied at UM, so I decided to go back to UM to get an MBA. During my time in Ann Arbor I took a lot of classes with LRCCS faculty like Linda Lim, Yi-tsi Feuerwerker and Shen-fu Lin; the center was an excellent resource for research on China.
LRCCS: What did you do after you graduated?
Stanley: At that point I got a job in Changzhou with a US-China manufacturing company. I joined shortly after the joint-venture agreement had been inked, and I became their finance director and one of the on-the-ground guys in the company. I was one of only three foreigners in the city.
LRCCS: What was Changzhou like in the early 90s?
Stanley: I described it to some people as being like camping for two years. Things that I took for granted were very difficult to find, such as news about the rest of the world. It was a great learning experience though – life over there was very different, and this was still in the time when State Owned Enterprises had a separate ecosystem for their organization. I got to see some fascinating things in that microcosm, like when the union in our manufacturing plant had a joint wedding for 7 couples.
LRCCS: Were you invited?
Stanley: Oh yes, I was one of the “distinguished guests.” I believe they had me present some kind of gift to the couples, but I don’t really remember.
LRCCS: What are you up to now at KPMG?
Stanley: Now I’m the COO of our national markets group, which encompasses all our account and sector programs; looking after our major clients, our business development team, and all of our ‘go-to-market activities.’ So we help our core service providers position themselves in the market effectively.
LRCCS: Do you have any advice for current students who are considering going into business in China?
Stanley: The language is hugely important. It always was, but now it’s even more of a hard requirement. And I think the best way to get started in China is just to find something here to get your foot in the door; even if it’s not exactly the right thing, it’ll be much easier to find that thing while you’re in China.
Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard