QINGDAO, China (AP) — After Haier Group bought the General Electric Co. appliance unit last year, the Chinese company’s chairman says he gave its American managers unusual orders: Ignore me.
Zhang Ruimin built Haier from a failing refrigerator factory in the 1980s into the biggest maker of major appliances. Now, he is trying to transform a traditional manufacturer with 60,000 employees in 25 countries into a nimble, Internet Age seller of consumer goods and services from web-linked washing machines to food delivery.
To do that, Zhang has broken up Haier into a “networked company” of hundreds of independent business units with orders to act like customer-focused startups. He says GE Appliances will be given almost total autonomy.
“One of their senior managers asked, how are you going to control us?” said Zhang in an interview at Haier headquarters in this eastern Chinese city. “I said, I’m not your boss. I’m not your leader. The leader is one person: The user.”
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Zhang, who at 68 is still on the job a decade after many Chinese CEOs have retired, is leading Haier through radical changes to compete in a fast-evolving global market — changes that now include GE Appliances and its 12,000 employees, most of them in the United States.
Haier’s approach is a high-profile example of a wave of management experiments by Chinese companies as they expand into global markets.
The founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, Jack Ma, announced plans in 2013 to split it into 25 divisions to revive the innovative spirit of its startup days. After buying Volvo Cars in 2012, automaker Geely Holdings left Swedish managers to run the company while they also cooperate on developing cars its Chinese brands might export.
Companies that grew rapidly during China’s boom of the past decade also are spending heavily to invent or buy technology to improve their…