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

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS CANADA - By MAY ZHOU in Hous­ton mayzhou@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

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.”

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MAY ZHOU / CHINA DAILY

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.

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