Corporate success through calculated risk
Charlie Yao likes challenges; he gave up a cushy job at Shell to become CEO of startup Yuhuang Chemical in Louisiana
Charlie Yao, CEO at the billiondollar company Yuhuang Chemical Inc, once thought he’d follow in his father’s footsteps through life.
“My father was a chemistry professor at Wuhan University, where I got my degree in chemistry. I came to study at the University of Houston (UH) in 1983 and worked as an assistant professor for three years after getting my PhD. I thought UH would be my home and destiny,” said Yao.
By chance through a friend, Yao learned of a research position at Shell Oil’s R&D center with more than 2,000 researchers and applied for it. “By then I had already published 20 research papers at UH, and Shell hired me,” Yao said.
Yao worked in research and development at Shell for five years, producing 20 papers and five patents. “Then I realized that I could see how my life would be for the next 30 years – the same. I wanted a change,” Yao said.
Shell gives opportunities to those who want to advance themselves, and Yao was told that to change his current position, he needed practical experience.
“I looked around within Shell and found a chemistry technologist position at one of its chemical plants in a small town Gersmar, Louisiana. I sold my house in Houston and moved my family there in 1995,” Yao said.
“I remember during that time I did a seminar on career path and outlined my plan at Houston’s Chinese Association of Professionals in Science and Technology (CAPST). More than a decade later at another CAPST seminar, someone said to me: Your career turned out exactly as you said at that seminar years ago,” recalled Yao, who is also a founding member and past president of the association.
It was a bold move for Yao. He was warned by some colleagues that it could be a one-way ticket — he could be stuck there for the rest of his career.
“I was probably the first Chinese technical professional doing so at that time within Shell and the oil industry. I wore blue every day and worked with blue collars. I had to give myself the current English name because almost all of the plant workers were white and could not pronounce my Chinese name. My two kids were the only Chinese students at the local school,” Yao said.
Yao considered the experience invaluable for his career. “I gained complete knowledge of the manufacturing process, operation and management. Such knowledge became very useful later in my career.”
Three years later, Yao was called back to Shell’s corporate headquarters in Houston and was promoted to the position of quality assurance manager.
To Yao, however, it was still a technical position, and he wanted to get into commercial and business operations.
“By then I had worked at Shell for 10 years without any commercial experience. Luckily, I had a mentor of some sort within Shell and was given guidance as to what it would take to make a breakthrough,” he said.
Yao managed to win support from Shell; he enrolled in UH’s executive MBA program, with the costly tuition paid by Shell.
“After that, my career took off,” Yao said.
After completing the MBA, Yao went through a succession of positions up the ranks: product manager, global business development manager and global strategy manager. He also worked for Shell in China for one year and in Singapore for two years before being promoted to general manager of global supply chain at the Shell Criterion Refining Catalyst Co in 2013, the highest position held by an Asian immigrant within Shell.
To Yao, he could work at that position until retirement and call it a successful career. Little did he know, another opportunity soon would come knocking on his door.
Yao met Wang Jinshu, founder and chairman of Shandong Yuhuang Chemical Co, at another seminar organized by CAPST, where Yao was a speaker. By then Wang had spent more than two years looking for opportunities to develop a chemical business in Texas and Louisiana.
Impressed by Yao’s experience and knowledge, Wang approached him, first asking him for advice, then asking him to run Yuhuang’s $1.5 billion project of building a world-scale chemical complex, the largest green field foreign direct investment by a Chinese company in the US.
It was a difficult decision for Yao to make. “There were a lot of failed attempts to start up a Chinese company in the US. Should I trust some rich person from China? Should I give up my nice and comfortable position at Shell for an uncertain future? I had a lot to ponder,” Yao said.
However, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and challenge: “I am given over a billion dollars to start a project from scratch. I felt I was the perfect candidate for the job. ”
Eventually, Wang and Yao built a strong personal rapport, and Wang’s complete trust and confidence in Yao eventually won him over six months later.
Yao officially assumed the role CEO at Yuhuang Chemical Inc (YCI) in April 2014, and immediately began to tackle the tasks of a startup company — build a team and develop the project.
Yao selected Louisiana over Wang’s choice of Texas as the plant location. The official announcement was made in July 2014.
Some friends questioned Yao’s sanity leaving a secure and high position at Shell for YCI, but Yao proved them wrong. Two years later, YCI has grown from zero to a company with 60 employees.
The initial front-end engineering design of the project has been completed, the first step toward the construction the plant.
Looking back, Yao believes it important to have a career plan.
“One needs to think where you want to be a few years later, look at what it will take to reach there, and take action accordingly.
“If the next position you want requires four competencies, yet you are equipped with only one competency, you would only set yourself up for failure. If you have three, then you have a chance at it and you have room to grow,” he said.
I am given over a billion dollars to start a project from scratch. I felt I was the perfect candidate for the job.”
Charlie Yao, Yuhuang Chemical CEO Charlie Yao, CEO at Yuhuang Chemical Inc, talks about his role as CEO at a seminar hosted by the Asian Chamber of Commerce early this year.