Getting Down to Basics: "Seeing Is Believing" Describes the Learning and Development Agenda of the Hong Kong-Based Utility That Seeks to Entice New Customers and Business Partners in the People's Republic of China

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It's an event that would have inspired Confucius into full reflection: honorable Asian company hears opportunity knocking in its 130th year, and seizes it with proverbial gusto.

So it happened to The Hong Kong and China Gas Company Limited, the venerable utility founded in 1862. During the 1990s, the Hong Kong-based firm with its colonial pedigree was quietly enjoying a steady 70 percent market share when a burgeoning People's Republic of China (PRC) began expressing a need for more clean energy. So the enterprise quietly embarked on a "China adventure," ultimately opening a new business in Guangdong to test the joint venture waters.

Today, the company--commonly known as Towngas--is operating at full throttle. It engages in more than 120 joint ventures (JVs) spread across 20 provinces, has undergone a merger and acquisition, and is experiencing a compound annual growth rate of gas sales in excess of 40 percent for the last five years.

That means you might want to excuse the company's training and development function if it appears a bit winded. There's a lot on its plate, including instilling the basic concepts of safety to new employees and customers alike within a tradition-bound and hierarchical culture of typical state-owned enterprises, and to a target population with generally low safety awareness in gas utilization.

It also means you can forget those fancy distance learning initiatives and the virtual this and that. At Towngas, it's all about building trust and relationships within the PRC so that actual learning can occur. Call it Learning 101.

"To be honest, there's never been a breakthrough innovation in the entire history of this company," says Margaret Cheng, chief learning officer and head of corporate human resources. "Here, innovation is incremental." Cheng uses words like "perseverance" and "continuous improvement" to describe the mindset of a defiantly down-to-earth approach to support new business on the mainland.

Not that anyone is complaining. Being the right people at the right time and place has its rewards, after all.

Cheng believes that successfully introducing new ideas and concepts to individuals within China--especially the veteran engineers who are prospective JV partners--can be summarized in three words: "seeing is believing." Show them the worth of an idea and they will accept it. Yet in many cases, nothing less will do.

Case in point is the company's JV in the ancient city of Yixing in Jiangsu Province. Famous for its ceramics, especially its world renowned clay teapots, Yixing also was known for its constant smog from coal- and diesel-fueled ceramics factories. But when the Towngas JV demolished 700 chimneys and began burning low emission natural gas, grateful citizens got the picture.

Another example is an annual company orientation held in Hong Kong each year for some 200 mainland partners and employees. "To them, coming to Hong Kong is like a pilgrimage to Mecca," says Sam Liu, senior vice president of human resources and head of all PRC utility JVs. The popular learning event is used to reinforce the company's culture, develop personal relationships, and establish benchmarks for important initiatives concerning safety, customer service, and environmental protection, according to Liu.

No single issue ranks higher for Towngas than safety awareness and compliance. Severe winters, especially in the north, tend to entice impulsive behaviors that lead to safety hazards. In 2009, there were 29 gas-related fatalities, eight of which involved Towngas operations. …