First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Hans Kops

When Huawei Technologies set foot in the Netherlands in 2004, it did so to huge media attention. Not only because the Chinese information and communications technology company was now going to have a branch in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, but also – and especially – because it had already won a deal worth millions of dollars to deliver an advanced wireless network. The excitement was in itself understandable. After all, the reliability and stability of the ICT infrastructure in a data-driven economy and society is of great strategic importance, and so entrusting the delivery of such a vital data-transport-network component to a partner that was, at that time, relatively unknown in Europe was a big step to make. But launching-customer Telfort found Huawei’s proposal the most attractive, both technologically and financially. And so, the Dutch operator granted the internationally rapidly expanding and highly innovative Huawei the chance to prove itself on the European growth market of carrier networks.

‘This Dutch project is still a milestone for our European operation,’ says Wonder Wang, CEO of Huawei Technologies Netherlands. ‘It was the start of a long-term journey, one that has seen us really grow and expand our business activities in the years since we first came here.’

Broadband land

Since then, ten million residents in the Netherlands are now fully or partially dependent on Huawei networks, components, smartphones, tablets and business solutions for their digital connectivity and mobile access. The Dutch arm of the company, which started off with just four employees, has become a major player and employer in ‘broadband land’, the Netherlands. After the breakthrough with the Telfort deal, Huawei Technologies Netherlands now employs 650 people and delivers the platform and components for the current 4G network of KPN (the formerly state-owned company that acquired Telfort). In addition to this, more and more companies, research institutions and individual customers are using Huawei’s services and products. Two examples include football and events stadium Amsterdam ArenA, whose Wi-Fi network was set up by Huawei (a project that led to a business partnership with football club Ajax), and the Belastingdienst (Tax Authorities), whose systems have been converted to Huawei technology. When it comes to the consumer market, demand for Huawei smartphones and tablets has begun to rise, and a promising partnership with Dutch company Philips Healthcare, specialists in medical technology, has also been announced.

‘We are one of the key players now,’ says Wang. ‘But this comes with a big responsibility, one that grows bigger with the success of our business. Now that we are integrated into the Dutch business community, we feel an even stronger commitment to deliver stable, sustainable and reliable network solutions, products and services.’

An unusual strategy

Huawei Technologies is one of the jewels in the Chinese growth-model crown. Founded in 1987 by businessman Ren Zhengfei, it has grown from a small privately owned company in the metropolis of Shenzhen to the world’s leading ICT-solutions provider. Huawei now has more than 170,000 employees in 170 countries, and with more than 70,000 registered patents, it is also the most imaginative and innovative company of the last decade.

Through its massive amounts of R&D work, Huawei has long been devoted to the improvement of technologies for network platforms and connections. In addition to this, the company has also been developing and selling smartphones and tablets for a few years now, and it supports and advises organisations in establishing and maintaining the most appropriate ICT infrastructure. These are also the three pillars of the Dutch branch, explains Wang from Huawei’s European Enterprise Exhibition Centre, the company’s office in Amstelveen. On the wall opposite him, Huawei’s motto, ‘Building a Better Connected World’, is painted in large letters.

‘When we announced this strategy, I was asked by many CEOs and CIOs in my network if this was a wise move,’ he says. ‘They told me: “Wonder, you cannot simultaneously succeed in business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets.” But, at Huawei, we see things differently. ‘Everything we do is about interconnectivity. We lay out the networks for the distribution of data, we help corporations and public organisations to store and process their data in a secure environment, and we deliver devices to end users so that they have their data at their disposal anywhere and at any time they like. We feel that all ICT businesses are related and, if you work in the information business, should be part of your proposition. I am sure that this decision gives us a huge competitive edge now. Especially since we are rather unique in this. Most of our competitors are still afraid of the complexity of this kind of business integration.’

The European network

Whatever the case, it gave Huawei a huge push in Europe, and sales in the Netherlands are also developing at a promising rate. ‘Because of their larger volumes, Germany and France are our main markets in Europe, but the Netherlands is not far behind. And that is a remarkable achievement; the Netherlands is a pioneer market when it comes to the field of ICT. Lots of technologies and applications are launched or tested here, and that makes it more interesting for Huawei to be part of this business network.’

It gives Huawei Technologies Netherlands a special position in the European network. As the company’s European headquarters are located in Düsseldorf, Germany, the Dutch office has the status of Competence Centre. Powered by the reputation that the Netherlands is the logistics gateway to continental Europe, Wang and his team have successfully claimed the role of logistics hub further. Partly because Eindhoven, which lies approximately 100 km south of Amsterdam, has been chosen as the site for their new European distribution centre for smartphones and ICT components. ‘It was a pretty exciting moment when the decision for the site was being made,’ says Wang. ‘Germany pushed for Hamburg, the French opted for Le Havre and Belgium wanted Antwerp. But ultimately, the head office opted for the combination of Rotterdam and Eindhoven. Rotterdam is the largest port in Europe and guarantees us a stable and reliable supply of materials. The connections to and from Eindhoven are good, and by having our central distribution centre there, we are positioned relatively close to our largest markets and near some important buyers of our products.’

A country with an edge

For Wang, who came to the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area in 2012 as Global Key Account Director for KPN and was promoted to CEO of Huawei Technologies Netherlands one year later, the Netherlands still has an edge. He has felt at home here since day one.

Like many content expats, he sums up almost mechanically the list of benefits he and his compatriots enjoy: housing and living costs are low (especially if you compare them to what his London colleagues have to pay); the city is safe and accessible (particularly Amstelveen, where he often works); there are several international schools (which also offer Chinese in their curricula); for a frequent flyer, it is reassuring to know that in just the space of half an hour, you can move from office chair to airplane seat; everyone speaks English and is more or less internationally oriented; there is a Chinese bank (ICBC) that facilitates payments with his homeland; and the welcome and support from the people of amsterdam inbusiness (the service that, on behalf of the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, invites new companies to the region, helps existing businesses find a suitable location and the right business services, and mediates in the application of [residence] permits) is great. In fact, thanks to their intercession, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was willing to personally open Huawei’s new 10,000 m2 distribution centre.

Open ecosystem

As a manager, Wang – who studied economy and telecommunications at the Chinese equivalent of an Ivy League university – is especially fascinated by the accessibility and openness of the business ecosystem. ‘Dutch people are in general very open, transparent, internationally oriented and straightforward,’ Wang says. ‘Before coming here, I worked in several other countries, but never have I related so well to the culture of doing business as I do here. In many aspects, Dutch and Chinese business professionals are alike. Both are results-driven and innovative. I know that the Dutch are considered to be very direct, but I value that. Especially with business partners. You know where you stand, and that makes me feel comfortable.’

Wang works with a team comprised of 13 nationalities, and most of his co-workers are Dutch. When dealing with them all, the Huawei Technologies Netherlands CEO has learned to use a different form of direction. ‘Traditionally, the Chinese way of managing is to take a centralised approach, but the Dutch like to first discuss everything together and then to make a decision. Huawei is now an international enterprise, and so getting such buy-in is very important indeed. But in the Netherlands, things go one step further, and that is very valuable to me. Because once a consensus is reached, everyone is happy and everyone feels a personal responsibility to comply with the agreements.’

When Wang is asked whether he is concerned that the Huawei DNA might change in this business culture, he laughs out loud. ‘It is important not to focus on the cultural differences, but on the similarities. And as I said before, there are plenty of those here.’