August 2011

Going with the flow

Alan McMillan, CEO of JIE Technologies and director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, opens his diary

We are sourcing new clean-tech products in Canada to bring to China. We currently use UV technology solutions. There is a lot of urbanization in China, and especially in Shanghai, and people are looking for a better quality of life. Cleaner water is a part of this. China currently treats water with chlorine, which we all know is not good for you and not environmentally-friendly.

I'm from Toronto, where there are a lot of water technologies that need exposure to the China market. It was logical for me to bring it here. There's a lot of work involved with securing a new product line and developing its market strategy. So this summer, I'm combining my summer holiday with business. The kids can have fun while Dad works during the day. At night we get together and visit old hangouts and see friends in Toronto.

We recently secured an order from a large hotel chain, in which we'll provide clean drinking water to all of their properties. It's an important market for us, as hoteliers are expanding quickly in China.

We are now the only international company with approved UV water treatment products and the knowledge to supply them. It took two years of work on specifications and approvals. The Ministry of Health has made it tougher to supply products for drinking water. It's a good thing for everyone, but the approval process is very difficult and long. We had to do a lot of different tests on our product to ensure it met standards. Because Jie Tech is the first foreign company to do this, the process was difficult to figure out. We spun our wheels a bit at the start.

We recently reset our pricing strategy in China to address regional differences and various requests. We talked to end-user customers and our partners throughout China, and also analyzed similar companies to understand how they set their pricing and discounts. It wasn't easy to get a clear picture, but our thinking was that solving 80% of the problem is better than not making a decision at all. In other words, you can't keep everyone happy but you should move on with things.

I married a Chinese woman in 1998. She has helped me a lot in navigating cultural differences and stopped me numerous times from making mistakes. During a meeting, I will hear one thing and then she will fill me in on the nuances afterwards. I'm pretty straightforward in what I think; but in a meeting, people might be saving face by saying they'll buy our product even if that's not what they mean at all. I still have a lot to learn.

I was elected as board member of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in January. This has been helpful because it provides opportunities to network and bond with people. It also gives you access to more senior people who visit China, including politicians.

I recently went to a social media event organized by the Canadian Chamber. It was interesting to hear how the Chinese market is using social media, and the strategies that different companies are using. We generally sell to businesses, so we haven't used social media before – but it's something we're exploring.

- As told to Casey Hall

Alan McMillan is CEO of JIE Technologies, a company that sells clean-tech products in China with a specific focus on water technology and green buildings.