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Public Affairs Television "Becoming American" Interview with Shirley Young
BILL MOYERS: Let's just begin with your life to date. You divide your time between New York and Shanghai? Tell me about what life is like living in two cultures today.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, New York is a vibrant city. I've lived here many, many years. So, it's a wonderful place to be. But Shanghai is like New York, [except that] it's new. Everything is new. Everything is changing. Everything is, we want to do it differently, whereas in New York, everything is established and to try and find a new way of doing it takes a lot of effort. But in China, I think everything is [happening] for the first time. So, it's fascinating. Shanghai decided they needed to be green.
BILL MOYERS: To be green?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Green. Because they'd build all these shopping centers and have these big cement plazas outside. They decided they should be green, that they needed a green lawn. A lot of people criticized it. So in the last, let's say, three years, 23 percent of the surface are green.
(LAUGHS) So, for example, outside my house, what used to be a big cement plaza, very pleasant, is now sod. And it's grass. I looked out my office one day. This happened in three weeks, just to show you the pace of things. This was right before the APEC [Asian Pacific Economic Council] meeting in Shanghai. And I looked out my window and I burst out laughing, 'cause it was a subway station and outside was a tile plaza before you go into the subway. And in those three weeks I had gone, a garden had just became a park.
And the funniest thing was that it had flower beds that spelled out A-P-E-C. (LAUGHS) And that all happened in three weeks. That was a form of welcome, I guess.
BILL MOYERS: So, you have a sense of a nation being born again?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: A new modern nation?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: My aunt, who has just celebrated her 100th birthday this past summer, was playing cards with her friends in her air-conditioned, very simple apartment. They could order downstairs to the restaurant, send food up. She said, "These are the best years of our lives." She said, "What else could we want? We're sitting here with our friends playing cards. We can order in downstairs, order something up. We're sitting in cool air-conditioned comfort."
BILL MOYERS: And she's 100 years old?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: She's 100 years old. She went through--
BILL MOYERS: She lived through the Chinese-Japanese war--
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: --World War II--
SHIRLEY YOUNG: The Cultural Revolution. All her possessions were taken away. She had to live under the staircase in a little hovel place. And so, you can't imagine what people are going through. But there's kind of an "up" attitude about it, a dynamic. You can feel the energy when you come into that town.
BILL MOYERS: Do you feel Communism's hand loosening day by day?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I come back and I read the papers. The impressions that you would get and that my friends have, is kind of those images you've seen: everybody wearing their Mao suits and obviously, a tremendous amount of repression. Well, you go there and the people who are more affluent are going away for the weekend.
Everybody's worried, thinking: I have to save money because I'm gonna buy, maybe a car or I'm looking for a job and I hope I can get promoted. I mean, these are all the white-collar people. There's a place in Shanghai which just came up in the last couple of years, kind of like Quincy Market in Boston. And on any evening at about ten o'clock, you can go there.
And if the weather's not too severe, there are these stainless-steel tables and chairs outside, and people are sitting there eating gelatos and having cappuccinos. And I mean, and these are not foreigners. These are Chinese, locals. (LAUGHS) You look at it and you say, "This is China?" (LAUGHS)
BILL MOYERS: How far out in the country do have to go to get to the old China that does resonate in our minds?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, I've been to small towns. Even there, everybody's looking up. I mean, for example, there was a guy selling these kind of pancakes on the street. So, we talked to him. It was kind of a little shack. And he had a curtain. There was this bed behind it. And he said, "Well, I used to be the manager of a factory. The factory was closed. And so now, I've got a small pension, but I don't have enough money to survive." So, obviously, he had a hard time. So, he said, "I run this pancake place. And I stay here and I make the--" We said well, what are you looking at? He said, “My daughter's going off and she's studying computers. And my son is in another city." And so, everybody, irrespective of what you are, is looking forward to improvement.
BILL MOYERS: Many Chinese-Americans who have traveled to China to visit have told me they have never felt more American than when they are in China. Now, why do you suppose that's so?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I'll tell you an interesting little anecdote. There were some Chinese children who were performing who came to Detroit. And this is not about being in China, but it's analogous. And they stayed with a family. Some families had similar-aged children, let's say ten, 11, 12. And the Chinese children were very disciplined 'cause they were performing. Every morning they got up at six o'clock. They did their studies. They did their exercises, et cetera. They had a very disciplined life. And when the parents tried to say to the American kids, "Well gee, shouldn't you be more like these?"
They said, "Oh my gosh, this is human rights." (LAUGHTER) “No way”. And the most amazing thing was the Chinese kids couldn't get over was that the American kids could come in after school, open the fridge, and take out anything they wanted and have a snack.
That was amazing to them. And as the Chinese kids were on their last day, the foster parents, or the surrogate parents, said, "Well, what wish would you like for your last evening?" They said, "We'd like to be able to watch “The Lion King” all the way through. We've only been allowed to see a half an hour at a time. We'd like to see it all the way through." So the American kids said, "That's human rights. This is terrible." (LAUGHTER)
SHIRLEY YOUNG: So, when you consider that people who grow up in America have grown up in that environment, when you go in with the degree of discipline, the degree of constraint, you understand-- you feel different, obviously, okay.
But one of the things that I really feel blessed by, is that at this stage in my life and at this stage in the world, that I happen to have the good fortune to be able to be in both places and understand obviously, how we think as westerners, but also to try and be a little bit of a bridge in terms of helping them understand what America's about and why the Chinese think the way they do.
And being able to speak the language does help a lot. Because there are times when they say, "Well, we can't tell the westerners about that. how it is here."
BILL MOYERS: Being the daughter of a diplomat must have had some influence on you then, in wanting to build these bridges?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: When I was a young girl, that's what I always thought I wanted to be. I wanted to be a diplomat. I left China when I was two years old. So, I have no memory, zero, of China.
But I always thought I'd like to be a diplomat. So, when I graduated from college, I had studied international economics thinking this would prepare me. Well, there was no China to represent. I wasn't an American citizen, so I couldn't be an American representative of any kind. And so, I finished a nice education.
Everybody said, "Oh, you have a great record, wonderful. You should join our typing pool." (LAUGHTER) So, that was the way things were in 1955 when I graduated.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about that unique childhood.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: My first memories were of being in France, which is where my younger sister was born. And it was 1938, '39. I guess everybody was worried about war. And I remember hearing all these conversations about war. But I was in France. Apparently, French was one of my first languages that I spoke.
BILL MOYERS: Your father was posted there?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: He was posted there, yes. And then we went to the Philippines. My father was posted there. And then he actually lost his life there because he was the consulate general. When the Japanese came in, [the consulate staff members] were all arrested. And then they were all subsequently executed.
BILL MOYERS: Your father among them?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: My father and the entire consulate. There were seven of them. I remember, when Pearl Harbor came, we were all taken to a big hotel right on the bay there, Manila Bay, the Manila hotel. All the ships were afire, all being burned. I guess the Americans, before they left, felt they should burn the ships. And so, we stayed in this hotel room with all the other diplomats, Americans, et cetera.
This was from December eighth until the end of the year. It was a period where the Japanese were bombing and World War II had been declared. But the Japanese hadn't come in yet. So, they were talking about Manila being an open city or whatever. And actually, at that time, I later learned that MacArthur, who my father worked with a great deal, and was our neighbor, had offered for our family to leave with him to go to Australia.
And my father, who as the consulate general, felt he was the head of the Chinese community, said, "I can't leave. I must stay." So, he stayed and we all stayed, obviously. And he subsequently lost his life. But while we were there, I think it must have been early January, was the day that I remember we were sitting at breakfast, a late breakfast. And we had seen the Japanese soldiers come in. And they had those bandages around their legs, which to me, was very fascinating. The floors were marble. So, they walked-- click, click, click, click, .
And they came in. It was kind of frightening but fascinating. And then that morning, as we were having breakfast, they knocked on our door. And this gentleman, the Japanese soldier came in. And I guess my father was expecting him. So, he went into the bedroom, got his suitcase and he left.
And then he went to prison. I think we only saw him a few times, couple times later, after that. Then he was taken to the some prison far away. He initially actually was put into Fort Santiago, which is a Spanish-- a very, very tough prison. And they were all crowded together. And many years later, there was a Filipino who was in that prison who said he saw my father's initials on the wall. And they apparently had been measuring each other or something.
And he saw my father's initials and he was quite sure that that was the cell that he was in, with all those other people. But at any rate, they were then taken to a prison far away, which we couldn't see. And we had no idea what happened to them.
Actually, later, it turned out that by April of 1942, the Japanese had decided that they were not diplomats because they had recognized a public government in China. So, therefore they said, "You're not representing anybody." And the reason they executed them was, they wanted my father as the leader of the Chinese community to collaborate with them. And there was a lot of money that had been raised by the Chinese community, which was a wealthy community, for the war effort against the Japanese. And my father had control of that.
And it was in some Swiss bank or something, and of course, they refused to turn it over. And so, for their non-cooperation, they were ultimately executed. And actually, my sister and I went back to the Philippines in 1995, for the 40th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. And there's a big memorial in the Chinese cemetery, and a Chinese school and a kind of memorial hall. And there was this big plaque.
It was inscribed. The eyewitness report of how they were killed. And it was inscribed on this stone tablet from this farmer, I guess, who saw them walk out into the fields and then they were asked to dig their own graves. And then they were to be blindfolded. Apparently my father refused the blindfold. And then they were all shot.
BILL MOYERS: How old were you at that time?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, when the war started in 1941, I was six. And up until the time I was ten, we were there during the war.
BILL MOYERS: Your life had to change so dramatically from living the privileged life at the consulate general of China in Manila with servants and gardens--
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yes. Right.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, my mother tells me that all the women and children of the seven consuls had no place to go because all the husbands were taken. They had no salaries left. So, they all moved into our house. We had a bungalow, just a nice family home with three bedrooms. And we had 40 people there as a result of this. So, that's how I grew up. And it went from this very nice, suburban place with beautiful gardens and flowers.
The first thing that went was, there was no more gasoline. So, we had no more cars. So, we went to horse carts. And then pretty soon, the water supply was cut, so that we went to wells. And then there was no more electricity, of course. And so, we went to candles and kerosene. And we just went back, back, back. And then the garden became a farm. We had chickens and ducks and pigs and all that. And so, I grew up on a farm. (LAUGHS)
BILL MOYERS: Your own house. But--
SHIRLEY YOUNG: But it became a farm.
BILL MOYERS: But suddenly from abundance to deprivation, from self-sufficiency to--
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, we became self-sufficient in a rural sense. (LAUGHS) I mean, we used to make our own soy sauce. We had to grind take the husks off our own rice. We did all that. We made our own shoes, and we did everything.
BILL MOYERS: What did you learn from that experience? Somebody said to me that they thought Shirley Young learned to prevail through hardship and then gained the ability to react to change. This is somebody studying your life here. What did you learn from that experience?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: One of the greatest things was that it wasn't unhappy. And that's a fact of my mother. And my mother's a great woman. She's 97 today, very hale and hearty.
But here she was, she was originally a Shanghai beauty. And then she became the wife of a diplomat. And then all of a sudden, she became the head of basically, a commune, okay. (LAUGHS) And you can imagine, there were two families in each bedroom. And there was only one kitchen. And everybody had their own help, their own cook or amas [nannies] to take care of you.
You can imagine, with everything being scarce, what kind of battles are going on-- "Oh, he stole my oil and she used my rice, and that belongs to me," and all this kinda stuff. And she maintained calm.
And the thing that I learned was that whatever the circumstance, you can be happy. Because actually, we had a very happy childhood. And somehow, my mother kept us all together. And I don't remember suffering, hardship-- Oh yes, the food was bad. And I had a plot of vegetables I was planting. And it used to really kill me, because the soil was so poor.
So that's why I love rich soil now. (CHUCKLES) And once the plants came up, all the bugs would eat big holes into the vegetable leaves. So, I mean, I would get upset. And we had bad food, I'd always complain. But it was not unhappy. We were happy together. And I had lots of friends all of a sudden, 'cause we were ten kids all of a sudden instead of just three girls.
So, I guess it taught me that whatever the circumstances are, the human factor still depends upon your relationships. When I talk to my daughters-in-law, who are anxious to give their children, my grandchildren, a beautiful room and all this kind of thing, and I say, "It's not that important. It's lovely, of course. But it's not the most important. It really isn't." Because we were two families in one room, . (LAUGHS) And we had to put up a cot every night. But nonetheless, we were very happy.
BILL MOYERS: How did you manage to come to America?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, at the end of the war, my mother-- we then discovered that my father was dead, because frankly, all through the war, we weren't sure. We weren't sure whether it was just propaganda because we heard nothing. And periodically, there would be these announcements that all the prisoners were going to be let out by the Japanese, et cetera.
But it turned out, obviously, they had died. So then, my mother had to make a decision. And she had help from an old China hand named Bill McDonald. And also, the MacArthur people were helpful. And of course, the Chinese government also gave some help. And so, as a result, we came on the Liberty ship. We came in the Liberty ship.
It had been a luxury liner, a Presidential- liner. And I think it was geared for maybe only 1,000 people. But there were 3,000 of us on this ship. But that was so luxurious. At the end of the war, we'd been without electricity.
We all took a bath, because you had to boil the water. Five of us would take a bath in a basin with this much water. So, my mother was first. My oldest sister was second. My younger sister was third because she was small.
Then I was fourth. And by the time it got to me, the water was really gray, okay. (LAUGHTER) 'cause there's only this much water. We were in a basin this big, . But all of a sudden, we got onto this ship. And there were electric lights and there was food and there was-- I mean, it was like going to heaven. (LAUGHS)
BILL MOYERS: But the Liberty ships were the old commercial liners that had been conscripted by the government to transport troops to the war?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: It was for troop transport but now, they were bringing the refugees. I mean, there were western Caucasian nuns. And people who had been in Santo Tomas in prison, American citizens. And so, this ship was full of that kind of people. And we got in as well.
BILL MOYERS: Where did you land in this country?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: We landed in San Pedro, California.
BILL MOYERS: What was your first impression of America?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I thought we'd reached heaven. (LAUGHS) Because there were these gray ladies. And we had all kinds of good things to eat.
BILL MOYERS: Gray ladies were the women--
SHIRLEY YOUNG: They were volunteers. They were so nice to us and gave us toys to play. It was just amazing.
BILL MOYERS: What did you come most appreciate about America since then?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, I think that started my appreciation of what I think is really what America's great strength is. America's really a generous and a warm-hearted nation. And it really accepts all kinds of people and treats them so well. And I experience that not only that very first time that we arrived, but subsequently.
I mean, through various friends, I went to good private schools, and then I went to Abbot Academy, which is now parts of Phillips Academy, a great school.
BILL MOYERS: You were President of your class there?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Right, right. [President of the] Class—like all 20 of us or something like that. But then I went to Wellesley College on scholarship. And all through, I got all kinds of stipends and awards and scholarships. In a way, [I was wondering] why would they have done that for me? You could say, I wasn't a citizen. I was a foreigner.
And I came into this school, these schools and I was treated so well. And therefore, I always have felt I owe a great deal to this country.
BILL MOYERS: How did you choose advertising and--
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I didn't.
BILL MOYERS: You didn't?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: No, absolutely not. I grew up as this idealistic young woman out of Wellesley College.
I mean, anything commercial is selling your soul, okay? (LAUGHS) No. Absolutely. But I got out of college at a time when women weren't supposed to have careers. Now, interestingly, in Asia, we've had women presidents of countries. We've had Madame Chang-- we've had lots of women leaders. So, in China, the male/female thing is not so-- Education and perhaps class, you could say, and if you come from the right background, you have an education, you have capability. Whether you're a man or woman, you can advance. So, I'd always had this idea from the time I was young. I wanted to do things.
I wanted to be a diplomat or whatever, serve my country, . And so it never occurred to me that I would just kind of finish college and then just kind of retire, okay, and raise children, raise a family, and all that. I had no conflict. I mean, this was the time when the feminine mystique came and all the conflicts that my classmates had about, "If I'm not home to make the brownies for my kids, will I be a bad person?" so if I shouldn't be away from home. They had all this psychological pressure on them. But I didn't have any of that. I just assumed I've gotta go out and do work.
The only problem is that when I got ready to go to work-- nobody was particularly interested in me. I wrote 100 letters. And I must tell you, I was, embarrassingly stupid, okay, naive. I wrote these letters and then I do this interview and they say, "Oh yes, young lady, you have a lovely record, you did very well.
Great school you went to. And so, what do you want to do?" I said, "Well, I'd like to make a contribution to the world. I'd like to make the world (LAUGHTER) a better place." And I'd like to be part of what makes the world go around. Well, understandably, I didn't get any offers. Then they say, "Well, maybe you should join our typing pool. You could become a secretary." And I'd say, "No, no. I think I'd be bad at that."
So, I didn't get any job offers. I went to a hundred interviews. I wrote to everybody, but no, I didn't get any job offers. So finally, a Wellesley classmate of my sister's, who had once seen me at school had said, "Oh, when your sister graduates, if she's interested, I'd be interested in her, so send her my way."
And she worked for something called market research. Never heard of market research. So, out of desperation, I went to go see her. And she said, "Well, you can go through a training program." So I went. But I thought, "Well. I'll do this for awhile just to get some income." But I really wasn't very serious about it. But it turned out it was very interesting because it was about understanding the way people think.
And actually, when we started, it was more about what people do. How many people blow their nose so many times, and how many tissues do they use at a time, (LAUGHS) and several things like that. But we started to look more about the way people think. Did they like it? Did they not like it? What would they wish it was more so or less so, whatever it is. So, it wasn't too bad.
I was there for about a year and a half. And so, I got put into a department. You supervised field interviewers, kind of a dead-end job. It was lots of nice ladies who had these jobs and managed these field interviewers.
That was the first time I took piece of initiative. I had been studying paper products. And there were several products in the business. One of them was a company in New York. So, I wrote to the company.
And I said, "I've been studying your industry and your products for the last several years through market research and understanding your brand. And I'd very much be interested joining your market research department." And the Vice President wrote back and he said, "Interestingly, we're just thinking of starting a market research department. So, why don't you come and see us?" And that's how I got my first job on my own. (LAUGHS)
BILL MOYERS: But you went over to do some of the pioneering work at Grey Advertising in the '60s. What was that all about?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, first of all, how did I get to Grey, that's the first question. I said I was basically rolled up at the carpet and delivered to Grey, because this paper company decided to choose a new agency, and decided, "We don't need all this overhead in our company here.
We should give it all to the agency," (CHUCKLES) and that they should take these people. They said, "They're gonna have to hire people. Why don't they hire people who know our business?" So, we had a very innovative person, an executive there, and-- so, I got given to Grey Advertising. (LAUGHTER) So, that's how I got there. And I thought well, I don't know whether I'm gonna like this. But anyway, I started there.
And while I was there, my boss and the deputy head were some very well-known people who were just in the process of getting started. There was a team of us. So, it was Al Lichenbaum (PH) and Russ Haley (PH), all great names in research. And I was part of that team as a young researcher.
And got into not just looking at behavior, but motivations, desires, et cetera. And it was a time when the advertising industry was changing from kind of the old school time, gave your business to your roommate at prep school or college and that kind of business, to where people had real problems in selling in the marketplace, and they'd be looking for a company that could really help them. And through research, we would be able to discover what really needed to be done, and how they should change their products and things like that.
So, that was how Grey Advertising advanced itself. And so, research became one of the big points of difference of the agency.
BILL MOYERS: Well, what was the difference? With attitudinal research, what were you looking for when you went after people's attitudes?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: [We used] focus groups, quantitative research, polling. Do people approve of Bush's approach? Are people in favor of the war on Iraq, et cetera, or even how to position themselves on economics or on welfare or on Medicare. Well, that's what we were doing about products.
BILL MOYERS: But before anybody else had done it?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: That's exactly right. And so, that became a really compelling advantage that we had. And so, I really did that for quite a long time with these companies. One of the places where we did was the automotive industry, interestingly because I was fascinated by that. And we had this chance, suddenly, to work, for the Ford Motor Company. And they had a product called Pinto, which was the first small car so that was a very big piece of news because as the American manufacturers had really only had middle and large cars. So, with great effort they were going to introduce this small car.
And the way it was introduced probably was the way the people in Detroit thought about it, which was kind of like a fun toy car. That's why it was called Pinto, like a little horse. And the way that they advertised it and presented it to the world was this little frisky colt dancing around. They said, "Oh, this car is going to be fun to drive and this is the new Pinto." Well, the car was very unsuccessful. And so they came to talk to us. And then we did research.
And what we found out was is that while the auto people might have thought this is a cute, fun little car to the person, for the person who was going to buy a car at that price range, which I remember was $2,995, it was gonna be their only mode of transportation. They were looking for something reliable, with good fuel economy so they could afford it, take them to and from work and to all the important things they had to do.
And so this was not a fun car; this is a serious, basic, important functional product. So, what they were looking for was dependability, reliability, et cetera.
And so we completely changed the position from being this toy fun thing to a campaign that said, "When you get back to basics, you get back to Ford." And it was about how the old model T was reliable and dependable, economical, et cetera. And repositioned this is as a serious but high quality small car.
And it became an enormous success and sold ultimately over a million vehicles. So that was the big turning point and that was how we actually discovered that [we should be] going to the customer, finding out how they viewed it. Not how did the expert view it.
BILL MOYERS: You also made some breakthroughs in the study of branding, why people bought this brand and that brand, is that right?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, what that was about was to really understand what makes a brand a brand. Now, today it's very fashionable. Everybody wants to be about brand. I'm sure that your show wants to be a brand, okay? And everybody talks about preserving the brand, protecting the brand.
But at the time people were not so clear and people used to take a given brand and then want to change it completely. I remember a very funny little incident which is about brand equity, and I remember I used to give this as an example.
You remember the Oak room at the Plaza? We always used to say, "Well, what's the product like?" Well, that's the way it looks and the food it serves, et cetera. And then how is it positioned? Well, it's upscale and towards prestigious people. And then what's the personality? Basically conservative. So, those are the three P’s: product, positioning and personality.
If you thought about it that way you would understand exactly what that Oak room was. Well, at some point, they decided they needed to upgrade, modernize. And they made it into this pink and green tulips and stuff like that. And of course it completely destroyed the brand equity it had and tried to be something completely different in trying to be modern. And it was a total failure. Now they've gone back ever since to the Oak room.
But that was the understanding of what brands are and that if you thought of a brand as a friend that you could trust, that's what a brand was. So, it was just really looking at what brands mean and then how to think about it and then how to understand what is that equity. So, yes you want to update but you don't want to lose what you've got.
BILL MOYERS: You may have invented the concept of branding.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: No. We invented the term brand character which was to say is like the character of a person. You can change your job, you can change your status in life. You can become rich or poor but your character doesn't change.
It's the same thing with brands. Brands can change their package and maybe change their ingredients. I mean, obviously we all look now in marketing history and look at Coca Cola. When Coca Cola decided to change itself in terms of the product, it destroyed its equity. And so the consumers revolted and it had to go back to its brand equity./p>
BILL MOYERS: Were you recognized for your work at Gray?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I think so. Maybe not me individually but we had a whole department and it became the Gray Advertising thing where we made our point of difference to out potential clients or potential customers.
BILL MOYERS: And you got to be number two in the department, didn't you?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Oh, no. No, no. I got to be number one. But that's an interesting story. Because you see people ask me, "Well, did you suffer discrimination as a woman, as an Asian, et cetera." Well, my sister and I say, "We were kind of oblivious." We grew up in a family where we had all kinds of important people coming through our house: prime ministers and ambassadors and all kinds of people.
And my parents always gave us the feeling that we could sit at the dinner table [with them]. We could talk to anybody. And some people were very rich or very powerful and we didn't like them. And some people were very humble but we like them. And my parents always treated them that way.
And subsequently my mother married Wellington Koo who was a great diplomat and great figure in China's foreign affairs and China's history. But he took that kind of approach as well.
So, when we went into business, I always felt it didn't matter what the people were like. Therefore I didn't expect discrimination. I didn't go in feeling, "Oh, I bet I'm gonna be discriminated against."
Except one day I got a telephone call from one of the officers at Gray, one of the vice presidents. He said, "Shirley." He said, "I just recommended you to be the agency's representative at some association. And I told them that if you weren't a woman you'd be the head of the department." I had never thought that was the reason I wasn't the head of the department.
Actually when the head of the department had gotten promoted, they brought in a new head of the department. After nine months it didn't work out. We had another head of the department. So, we had had probably three or four--
BILL MOYERS: All white guys?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Oh, yes. But it never occurred to me that I was being discriminated against. I always thought, "Well, I'm probably not good enough yet. That's why they keep on bringing these other people with all these very impressive resumes." But when he said that to me on the phone I was stunned. And he meant it as a compliment to me. (LAUGHTER)
So, then I decided there is discrimination. I guess I better leave pretty soon. So, I did leave for a while. But they were very smart because when I left I went to join my husband in a small start up company. And so because it wasn't competitive at the agency my boss, the one who had gotten promoted, said, "Well, we'll still keep in touch with you. And we'll give you in fact a small stipend because we'd like to call you periodically and ask you some questions still." So, I still had a connection with the company.
And about a year and a half later he called me to have lunch. He said, "Shirley," he says, "I hate to say this. It's taken us a long time to understand this. But we've decided you'd be the best head of the department." So, I came back as the head of the department.>
BILL MOYERS: Why didn't it occur to you to nominate yourself at some point?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Oh, I don't know. Maybe that's my Asian upbringing. I just didn't think that I should be so arrogant, self centered, whatever, that I probably wasn't good enough. I just assumed that.
BILL MOYERS: -- your culture said, "You don't brag--"
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yeah, not particularly. I mean, I would volunteer for things. For example, I decided, "Gee, it makes sense to speak publicly in associations and stuff because that's the way you-- " So, I was career oriented and took initiative. I was proactive because nobody told me I had to do it or I didn't think I couldn't do it. So, I did it.
And that was very helpful so I started to have a reputation. But it never occurred to me when I wasn't promoted that there was some reason that I was being held back. I don't know, it just never occurred to me.
BILL MOYERS: General Motors brought you over to a top position there to sell more cars and what else?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: To help understand the consumer better. They had a new board member named John Smail who was the head of Proctor and Gamble, who had joined GM as a board member. And of course Proctor and Gamble is a great marketing company.
And so one of the top executives at General Motors, Howard Kurl (PH), who was the vice chairman, who I was on the board with at Dayton Hudson. We used to chat on the way to the airport and back. And because I knew something about the auto industry 'cause we handled auto clients, Ford among them, et cetera-- we used to just chat about what was happening in the business.
And he said, "Our board tells us that we don't know enough about marketing. They keep on pushing us. We gotta improve our marketing. So, who would you recommend that we should bring on " I said, "You could bring in God and he couldn't do it. You've got 750,000 people in this company. No one person can make this company into a superior marketing [department]."
So, he said, "Well, what do you think we should do?" I said, "You gotta start from inside. And the way to do that is why don't you get all your executives, engineers, financial people, all the people who are powerful in the company and have a marketing conference and talk about what other companies have done and how important it is and understanding the consumer and how it can help you succeed." [He thought it was] a pretty good idea. He said, "I'll call you back."
So, he went back and he talked to his marketing vice president who told him it was the worst idea he ever heard (LAUGHING). But he's a stubborn man. He was vice chairman. He said, "They told me it's the worst idea they ever heard. But I'm gonna go ahead and do it, so help me plan this thing."
So, I said, "Look, I can't. I mean, I'll tell you some people you should invite who are great marketers and I'll be one of your speakers. But, that's about it." So then subsequently they did have this conference and I went to speak there. First of all, all the people who were in the advertising agencies of the company, because I came from Gray Advertising, thought I was gonna steal their business. So, there was a huge amount of suspicion and hostility from that.
Secondly, all these people who were engineers, financial people at that time thought, "Why are we going to a conference for marketing?" That was like not serious stuff. The serious stuff was product and engineering and finance. And marketing was like all this nonsense stuff you just push it out there.
BILL MOYERS: If you make it, they'll come.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Right. I remember it started at lunchtime. There was this cocktail party at the beginning, kind of a reception they had. So, I walked in. Well, the first thing was I had never seen General Motors people in my life except Howard Kurl who I was on the board. But there were all these-- as I said all in gray suits. Most of them with gray hair. All men of course.
And secondly there was clearly not a welcoming attitude. In fact Howard Kurl was very nice. He was on one side of me and there was a very innovative guy who was the head of the research labs at the research tech center.
So, the two of them were like my body guards. And we walked in and I said, "If looks could have killed I would have been dead." Because as I walked into this-- you just could feel the hostility, suspicion, what the hell is she doing here, et cetera.
So, anyway, I subsequently did my thing, gave my speech. And, the company at the time was a very insular company. They did things their own way. And this was the first time they had [opened up]. They didn't only have me, they had the president of Holiday Inn, they had a lot of other marketing people who came and talked.
And this was like the first time I think had ever been exposed to all these people, especially about marketing 'cause that was not a high priority in that company at the time. So I think that their ability to even change was a great credit to the management because the management including Roger Smith and others-- I'm sure that the board helped to encourage it. But I think they were very daring to say, "Gee, we better do something about this and maybe we should get some outside people."
BILL MOYERS: They wanted you to understand the consumer for what purposes? To sell cars obviously?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yes, of course to sell cars, to understand better, to market better, position their brands better. That was the time of that famous FORTUNE MAGAZINE cover which showed five different vehicles, all with different brands, Pontiac, Chevrolet, et cetera. And they all looked alike and it was about the look alike cars and how General Motors in their rush to downsize cars had made all their brands the same and lost the distinction between them.
So, there was a tremendous amount of criticism of the company at the time. So, the purpose was to get brand orientation into the company.
BILL MOYERS: But didn't they also want you to help their own employees understand that they were producing quality cars to help attitudes within the company, not just the public's attitude toward the company?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, I think it started by asking what's important to the customer. That was what they were really looking for. And then yes, quality. They had lots of, measurements about what makes good quality.
I don't think that was the problem. It was that they were not going towards what the market wanted. First of all, they didn't believe in research. They viewed people like JD Powers, who brought in bad news about them, they viewed them as hostile like, let's kill the messengers kind of thing.
And the people who would present research about a product clinic that showed that people didn't like this new model, nobody would believe it. They'd get very upset with the person who was presenting the results.
So, there was this whole period, it fortunately has now passed, where the company was convinced [it could tell the customers what to buy]. I guess in fashion Dior will tell them what length the ladies skirts should be, and they will wear them. Well, I will tell them what they're gonna want in their car and they will like it. They may not like it now but they will when it comes out.
BILL MOYERS: So, this was during the very early period. This was pioneering work.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: It wasn't early. This was like in the 80s. We're not talking about the 40s or 50s.
BILL MOYERS: That's true. What’s the secret of understanding the psychology of consumers?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I think there was so much knowledge about that. I didn't have to bring it in. I happened to be the vehicle. But the issue was the company wanting it. That was the issue. So, my job was really to come and bring that perspective into the company and persuade people to want it. There were dozens of companies and experts and research experts and marketing experts out there all over the place. But General Motors didn't want to have anything to do with them.
BILL MOYERS: But what did you do? What was the key? What was the turning point? What you said, did, showed them?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, I don't know. When I look back on it was kind of pigheaded or arrogant or something to think I could even go in there. But first of all they said, "Well, maybe you'd like to come here." I said, "Are you crazy?" Okay? I got this great job, I work at Gray Advertising, I travel the world, I have a reasonable reputation. People invite me all over the place. I have complete freedom to choose what I will do and where I do it, and I'm appreciated. Why would I come in and butt my head against a wall like this?"
Well, so, I agreed initially to be a consultant. And it became more and more [hectic] as I was carrying two jobs, and I just couldn't do it. But at any rate, they kept on offering me jobs and I kept on turning them down.
I said, "First of all, people here have waited 30 years for this job." There were very few vice presidents. And I couldn't take it from them. I haven't waited 30 years for it. I probably couldn't do as good a job as they could. So, I'm not gonna take it. I was offered three or four jobs that came up as vice presidents. This person is retiring, this person is leaving, whatever. I refused them all.
Finally I said, "However, if you create a job-- a vice presidency, which is what I'm doing now. I was a kind of an ambassador without portfolio within the company. I was unthreatening because I was an ambassador without portfolio. I could go between Pontiac and Chevrolet and Oldsmobile who didn't talk to each other. I could go between executives in this line and that line and that line who didn't particularly like each other. And I could talk to all of them. And I was the only person who could do that.
At one point somebody once said to me, " I don't know if I should tell this to you because maybe you're the enemy." (LAUGHTER) I mean, that was the way they considered each division-- Chevrolet person to think that Pontiac is the enemy. They would never tell a Pontiac person that.
BILL MOYERS: The people at General Motors have told me that they never had a more successful consensus builder. They never had a person more agile at connecting different and disparate parts of that company.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, I don't know about that but anyway that's what my job was. And I think, number one-- people came to recognize that I could be helpful to them. Number two, I always observed confidences. So, if this division told me something that I knew they didn't want that division I never revealed the confidence. But I would know it.
I'll give you an example. At one point, every division had their own approach to how the market is segmented. Is it rich and poor or is big and small? Is it fuel efficient or not? How is the market segmented? Which is obviously very important if you're trying to understand how to position all your different brands. And everybody had a different way of looking at it.
And I'd go and talk to them and say, "Don't you think we should have a single market segmentation approach for the company because it's like trying to conquer Europe with a different map." And they said, "You're absolutely right. But the one we've got is the best." Then and I go to each [department] and each one said that.
So, then what did I do? I knew that everybody agreed on one thing, that there should be one [market segmentation approach]. But I knew that they differed on which it should be. And that's where I could use then the leverage of how to use the management. I went to the management and I said, "You tell them that the goal is to come up with one. And let them work it out themselves."
General Motors is a very obedient, disciplined company. I mean, if the word comes from the top, they do it. So, that word went down and they were told, "Okay, you divisions and corporate, get in the room and solve this problem. There's gonna be one approach that's gonna be the company one. Fight it out amongst yourself." And then left them alone.
And they did indeed do that. So, my job was knowing what the problem was and knowing what they did agree on. So, once I knew they agreed on something that was a point of getting people together. (LAUGHTER)
BILL MOYERS: As you think back, is it possible to identify one important insight that they gained about the market, about consumers at this time?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: That was one that was crucial. That in fact the market was divided into these different kinds of groups that had different interests and needs. It wasn't just rich and poor; it wasn't just big and small. It was people who wanted performance and people who wanted a more conservative style. Understanding the different segments.
BILL MOYERS: People who wanted fuel efficiency.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yes, but they wanted usually a complex of things. For example, in styling some people like a very sporty style. Very sleek sports vehicle, so you have tachometers, you have all that kind of stuff.
Other people don't like that. For example, Buick people. At one point they said, "Well, let's upgrade and let's make it all computerized, all digital." And they went to great expense and put all these modern electronics into the Buick vehicles.
Well, the people who buy Buick's it's not just an old/young thing, it's an orientation. They want simplicity, they want more traditional, they want clocks that you turn and can find where the dials go. And they put all that stuff and they hated it. So, that was putting the product for the wrong segment.
BILL MOYERS: That's me by the way. I still like my cars very simple. I like to reach over and turn the radio.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, there's a whole group of people, particularly those who like Buick's, who like that. And once you change that, although it was more modern, more fancy, more hi-tech, they hated it. Now, there's another group that wanted that and they might drive Pontiacs. They would want that.
So, you needed to keep up and do it there but don't do it here because you had to understand which group of consumers wanted what benefits and attributes. So, that was what was essential in developing this whole "marketing segmentation" understanding of the automotive world.
BILL MOYERS: Now, I'm beginning to understand why after you retired from a full time position at General Motors in 1999 you took on a challenging assignment for the company in China. Tell me about that?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I should talk about how did I get to China.
BILL MOYERS: How did you get to China from General Motors?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I went with General Motors.
BILL MOYERS: Oh, you did?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Oh, absolutely. No, what happened was that here I was doing really basically helping the domestic market. And trying to help them understand what would their brand stand for. Chevrolet was the all American baseball, hot dogs, apple pie brand. Right? It shouldn't get all fancy and talk about it being European and German and all that. But that's not what the Chevrolet person wanted. That was what the brand equity of Chevrolet was.
And so we did a lot of work in terms of understanding the Buick brand equity. It was solid, conservative, it didn't want those zippy, zooty things. There were a lot of errors that were made.
In fact at one point they had a vehicle which had the fastest acceleration, the most powerful engine in the whole General Motors. It made no sense. Why would you put that under a Buick? You could put it under a Corvette or maybe even under a Chevrolet but not under a Buick. It was an oxymoron.
So, that was what we did a lot of. That was what I was doing at General Motors until about '94, '93-'94. And I got kind of pulled into the China business because I didn't go there for China at all. And that was not part of the mission at all when I first went there. It was for marketing, consumer branding, et cetera.
Well, I was sitting in Detroit and these delegations in '93, '94 would start coming from China. And our head office, General Motors international head office was in Zurich. So, these delegations would come to Mecca to come and see General Motors. And the people would tell them, "Oh, we're very sorry. Our head office is in Zurich. You gotta go the Zurich."
Well, it was so difficult for these Chinese to come out to get a Visa and all the rest of it. They were not about to hop on a plane and go off to Zurich. So, they would go to see Ford and they'd go to see Chrysler. They would be kind of contacted or connected to a very junior person at the company 'cause we didn't have anybody international at a high level in Detroit.
So, I would hear this from my Chinese compatriots. There were over 1,000 Chinese American professionals at General Motors. They work in the research labs and all different places. And they would call me up and I would have met them just socially. There were these Chinese American associations, and on occasion they'd invite me to a party.
So, I knew these people, and they would call me up. And they'd say, "Shirley, this delegation. He's a minister at a very high level. And he's seen a vice president the Ford, he's seen a vice president at Chrysler and we don't have anybody for him to see. We've told him to go to Zurich. Could you please come and have dinner with us so at least he could say he got an officer's card from General Motors. And it won't make General Motors lose face."
So, I went. I have nothing to do at all with international business and I would sit at dinner and then they would start telling me, "General Motors has got the wrong products, the wrong partner, the wrong strategy, the wrong this, that, that."
So, it put me in a very awkward position because of course I'd have to report this to the international people. I'd say, "Well, last night I had dinner with so and so minister, so and so whatever and here's what he said. I had to do that. It was the responsible thing to do." But it made me feel terrible and obviously the other people didn't like it. Why was I messing in their business for?
But I did. We had a head of our component divisions, a man named JD Badricker (PH) who was in charge of all the components. And he was trying to open up China because Jack Smith had become CEO of General Motors in a big change in '92. I remember we had a lot of difficulties in management.
Anyway, he became the new CEO and he was an internationalist. And he had his eye on China. He was convinced that China would be one of the future sources of growth in the future. And he had even traveled to China himself privately. So, he really had this in his mind.
And he asked the component people to open up because that seemed the easiest way as opposed to a whole automotive plant. So, they were charging out all over the place and sending back all these reports about how they all saw this plant manager and he really wants to work with us and it looks really great. But nothing was happening.
And then I'd hear from these people who came, these delegations, "You've got the wrong strategy, it doesn't work that way, blah, blah, blah." So, I asked the Chinese Americans. I said, "But why don't we create an advisory group which would take the benefit of your knowledge and present it to help General Motors take advantage of it."
And it was really very touching because just through the network they sent some faxes, emails or whatever it is and I remember we met at the tech center on an afternoon in a big auditorium. They're all Chinese Americans. I would say there are about close to 100 of them in this room.
And the man who opened the meeting said, "We called this meeting because in all the years we've been together, we've all loved General Motors and we've all wished that we could help General Motors be successful in China. But we've never had the opportunity. And this is the first time that we're gathered together on General Motors business as opposed to for New Year's or for Christmas or whatever it is. This is the first time we've gathered on behalf of General Motors with the chance of offering our knowledge to help General Motors succeed in its China business."
And it was really very touching because, here they'd all been wanting to do this and they were all spread all over and a lot of them had Ph.D.'s. They're high level researchers. But they had no way to do that.
So, I created this advisory group to leverage these people which would then advise the various groups to do it. But of course what happened was that companies being what they are, it was not welcome at certain parts. Now, our component groups were welcoming it but actually the automotive side, the international, did not love the man who was in charge of it. In fact, he told us to disband. So, this is a case where again some persistence was required.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me what you're doing for General Motors in China.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, the objective was to get a project accepted by the government.
It was a controlled industry. And therefore, you had to get approved from the government. You just couldn't go and spend money and start building something. You had to get approval, because this was a national priority in terms of the automotive industry. So, every major company in the world wanted-- There was gonna be one last project of the last five-year plan, which was gonna be ending in '95 or '96.
BILL MOYERS: You mean the Chinese government wanted to develop an automobile industry?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: That's correct; they did. But they also understood from all their research that they shouldn't let too many people come in. Because if they did, the business would be fragmented and be very inefficient.
And they already had too many small companies. They wanted to have the big project. And so, they wanted to get a major partner in. So, every major company, whether it was Japanese or German wanted to go in, including American companies.
And so, the whole question was: how did you go in? We started out by thinking it was more like the American model. Which is, you go in, you find a partner and you work it out with them, and they decide it makes sense, everybody's gonna make a profit, and that's it. Well, that's not the way it is in China, (LAUGHS). So, when we started to try and do all these businesses, and we found we weren't getting anywhere, we said, "Let's step back. Let's figure out what is this market about?" And that was part of what I helped to do, together with my colleagues, and determined was necessary. Just by listening to what the Chinese people were saying.
Number one, through an advisory committee of all these Americans of Chinese background that worked at General Motors, it became clear. This is a controlled market, an industrial planned market, especially in the automotive [industry].
And there were several big companies. They had several big companies, acouple of minor, secondary companies. And it was gonna be one of those six companies that was going to become a partner. And therefore, you had to work with them, not just go and find somebody. And you could find people in a province who would say, "Oh yes, we wanna develop an auto--" and say, "Yes, we'll help you."
But ultimately, it would fail because it wouldn't get approved at the central level. So, we said, "Let's find out what is it that they want?"
There was a company in there, Volkswagen. They'd been there for many, many years. But its product was an old, old product that was only sold in China. It was not sold in any other major market in the world. And they felt also, that they didn't have any capabilities to modify that.
Because they didn't have the technological know-how. So, from that experience, the Chinese had decided, "We want to be a world competitor in the future. Therefore, we must have modern technology." Well, we learned that by listening. And we heard about what it was that they were looking for.
So, we changed our strategy. Instead of going with the approach normally used in American business, very straightforward, you have a bull's-eye target, you go straight to that target, "I want a deal. I'll find a partner, fast, makes profit, we're gonna go." Well [in China], it's like a spider's web.
There are all these different influences. Because first of all, the motivations are not the same. If the government entity is involved, they don't get stock options. They're not gonna get a big bonus. Their stock is not gonna go up. So, what are they thinking of when they're talking about developing something? They're thinking of what's the social benefit? What's the benefit to the industry? What's the benefit to the economy? What's it gonna do to jobs? What is it gonna do to technology and training?
You have all these influences that are impacting what they decide they want to do. So, you really have to understand that you're not dealing with very straightforward profits. If we like it, if it works, it's great for everybody. No. It doesn't. It's great for the American company because we get options and we have stock and all that.
But that's not great for the Chinese side, 'cause they're looking for a much broader picture. So, therefore we said, "Let's step back and say what is that broader picture?" Well, they wanted to industrialize and develop the economy. And they knew that the automotive industry is one of the important engines of the economy. Therefore, they wanted a modern automotive industry.
Which meant technology and to-- product and all the rest of it. So, all these different factors and parties had to agree as to what was best, because they were all advising. So, we then stepped back and said, "Instead of just looking straightforward for that bull's-eye of a deal. Let's step back and understand what this market is looking for and what it's about."
That's what we did. And we recognized that gee, not only the city government's involved, the center government's involved and the scientific community's involved 'cause they want the best technology.
And the educators are involved 'cause they want training. There's even an aspect of foreign relations because they wanna be sure that it fits with a friendly country. (CHUCKLES) And all of a sudden, we were talking about understanding and getting involved in all these sectors, by which we then figured out who the best partner was and said, "Our goal is to be seen as the best partner for China's automotive industry."
So, our strategy changed from, "Let's get a deal that'll make us both [profitable]--" sure, we still want to get a deal that made money. But we also said, "Let's be seen as the best partner for developing China's auto industry."
BILL MOYERS: What happens if everyone who now rides a bicycle in that populous country winds up driving a car?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, they obviously have to build more roads. They're madly building roads. They have to build parking. A lot of buildings going up all over China haven't provided for parking 'cause they never imagined that people would be able to buy cars to that extent.
And you need service stations and you need all that. So, even for General Motors going in, what we went in and did was, not just to build a plant that could turn our product. We had to build components. Who's gonna supply all the different parts of the vehicle?
The servicing, the distribution, you oughta create a brand. You had to do all those things. So, we basically were creating an industry. We weren't just creating a plant.
BILL MOYERS: The way the automobile industry grew up in this country 100 years ago.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: But that took years and years. [In China,] we’ve done it all within three, four years. (LAUGHS)
BILL MOYERS: They're really in that fast a race?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: You spent your adult life studying human motivation and psychology. Is anything that you learned about the American consumer behavior transferable to China?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Absolutely. But the principle is, you have to understand what the customer wants. The customer's not the same. For example, our engineers would say, "Well, we're gonna make the car very serviceable so that everybody can fix it themselves."
In America, the driver's seat is the one that has all the controls, the most comfort, it has all the cup holders, everything like that. Well, I said right away, number one, remember the driver [in China], for awhile, is gonna be a professional driver, meaning a chauffeur of some kind. And the important person is gonna be sitting in the back. In America, the backseat is for the kids, the dog, the golf clubs. It's not so important. The front driver's seat is what's important. Well, in China, the important person's sitting in the back. That's for the large sedans.
BILL MOYERS: Because the first cars are gonna be for official use?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, for company use, let's say an owner of a company or an executive of a plant or something.
That's who's riding them. Even an entrepreneur who has his own business, he probably has a driver that drives him around. That's the first thing. You had to answer, who is that customer? What do they want? And secondly, for example, they wanted to talk about "easy service" building. Well, I said, that's not gonna be a factor. The guy who's gonna take the car to be repaired is gonna be the chauffeur. He's gonna take it to a service station. So, to make it easy to fix in your backyard is a non-issue. (LAUGHS) So, the key principle still is understand what their needs are.
BILL MOYERS: But what about the ordinary citizen who wants to have a car?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well today, finally, after a number of years, four or five years, more and more people are individually buying vehicles. So now small cars have come into China. And General Motors has got a small Buick as well, it sells for about $12,000, that is affordable. So, people are driving their own cars. So, all these issues of parking and services will become greater. But for the moment, many of the cars are still not self-driven. They are still driven by a professional./p>
BILL MOYERS: So, do you see China having traffic problems?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: They do already, unfortunately. There's still constraints in terms of taxes and stuff.
BILL MOYERS: Is there a serious cultural gap between China and the United States on trade and commerce?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Taking the exact experience we had going in, we said our strategy became to be seen as a good partner, which meant it's really all about mutual respect and having your interests as well as my interests.
That attitude is crucially important. People talk about how relationships are important. Relationships just mean "I respect you, you respect me. We may be different. And I want you to win and you want me to win, and we'll both win." That attitude became our strategy. Our overcoming that was probably the biggest factor in our success. In fact, I know it was.
And I'll tell you why. I mean, we did things like-- people from China would come in and we'd serve pizza at lunchtime for a working lunch. And we discovered that the afternoon, all they talked about was how awful the pizza was. (LAUGHTER) So we said, " What? They've just gotten off the plane.
They don't like cheese. They don't like a lot of meat. They don't like bloody meat. Let's just serve Chinese food." So, we'd order out from some Chinese place. And so, what did that say? It wasn't the food that was important. It just said, "Hey, we respect you. We understand that you're different.
You like Chinese food. And you don't like pizza. We like pizza." But so, we're gonna respect you in that regard and do that. So from little things like that, we really demonstrate that. But the reason I say that I know that our strategy of changing from, "We wanna make the best deal, et cetera," and going beyond that and saying, "Hey, we want this to be a real partnership, we want you to see us as a good partnership for now and for the future so that we both win," and how do I know that that worked?
We had won the project in '95. And we actually started production at the end of '98. In 1999, I was at the Great Hall of the People. It was the 50th anniversary of the country. And I was sitting next to a guy I didn't know, and said to him, "What do you do?"
He said, "I work for the Chinese Academy of Social Science." I said, "What's your field?" He said, "Foreign joint ventures." I said, “That's interesting.” He said, "Yes. In fact, I wrote a paper about the automotive joint venture," which was a very big topic a few years ago. And he said, "I recommended General Motors." I said, "Really?" He said yes.
He said, " We've already eliminated the Germans and the Japanese for different reasons. And we were down to two companies. It was General Motors and Ford. And for a whole year, the two companies were kind of vetted and compared as to who would be the final choice."
And I said, "So, why did you pick General Motors?" He said, "From a products standpoint, you both had good products. From a technology standpoint, you both had good technology. From the financial standpoint, you're both willing to match the other. But we felt that General Motors would make a better partner." And he said, "That's why I recommended General Motors." And I said, "Well, how did [conclude] that?" He said, "We went to visit a lot of different operations, both your company and the other company."
And he said, "Everybody we talked to at General Motors expressed the fact that they understood that they wanted to help China succeed as well as [the company] succeed so there would be a win/win. So, we felt that over the long term, you would be a better partner."
BILL MOYERS: So, General Motors was the big winner in getting into China?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yes. Yes, it did. There was only one winner, and we won. I'll tell you a good thing, a happy thing. Right now, because it's now 2003, and in 2002, the market was ahead, close to 40 percent, up 40 percent. That's the industry for cars.
BILL MOYERS: You were selling 40 percent more cars in China?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: The cars are 40 percent upright in China. General Motors business was about 50 percent. And it sold 110,000 vehicles last year which is quite respectable.
And the market is projected to grow by 20 percent for the next several years. Obviously, [we] make money when things are in that situation.
BILL MOYERS: And just as the car changed America, it's gonna change China?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And you would have been a pioneer in that--
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, hopefully. Hopefully, I was a part of it. I really feel grateful that I was able to [participate]. It's a case where you're lucky you're alive when you are.
Because if I'd been a lot younger I probably couldn't have done it. If I were older, I wouldn't have been here to do it. And so, the fact that at this point, I can serve a role. I think what has been helpful is that yes, of course, I understand Americans. I'm American.
But I think I still understood enough of China and I understood enough of the way to deal. And I think we did change the way we dealt. And I think the way we dealt was why we won.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think were the lasting values your parents imparted to you?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, I guess part of it was a sense of confidence that you could do what you wanted to do. And secondly, a sense of service. See, my father and my stepfather were very patriotic. [We’d say] "Oh, let's go do something fun." And we always used to hear, "No, no, I have to do this. This is important for our country. We must do this, or make this sacrifice," whatever it was. So, from the beginning, I always felt a sense of service. It was important to do something not just for myself or my family, for comfort, for fun. Try to do something. And that's what I used to say in those stupid interviews, that I'd like to make a difference in the world.
Like to contribute (LAUGHS) something to the world. In those stupid interviews I did, where I didn't get a job. So, I think that's what they gave. That you really should try and use your talents to do something that might be helpful.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you've been able to do that with General Motors in China, in terms of developing an industry, helping to introduce and start to develop a modern industry that’s gonna help China.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I played a part. I played a part.
BILL MOYERS: When did you become an American citizen?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: In about the late '50s. My husband at the time was in the Army.
And so, there was the Korean War. Their wives could get citizenship. So, I got my citizenship that way.
BILL MOYERS: When General Motors asked you to come there, to join them full time as an executive, what was their problem? What were they facing?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, they were facing lots and lots of problems, okay, facing problems externally, being perceived of as being out of touch, and internally, not having the right feeling about dealing with the marketplace.
And as a result, their public stance was more stonewalling. In other words, they never wanted to admit error. They were very good technologically in many, many ways. But a lot of times, they didn't know how to deal with the outside world in terms of [communicating with] people. Instead of stonewalling when people challenged you, if you communicate your own story effectively, sometimes it can help.
So, for example, they were continuously criticized for their quality. And actually, they did a lot of work to improve it and had accomplished a lot.
But they never figured out how to convey that. And so, one of the things I did when I was there on that particular issue was to say, first of all, let's admit our error, the fact that we did have problems, and then talk about what we've done to fix them.
BILL MOYERS: What year was this, Shirley? What period?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I think it was probably in the early '90s. They were under huge criticism and perceptions of terrible quality as a result, even though the quality had improved a great deal. They were still given the rap of having very bad quality.
So, even objectively it was there, nobody knew it. In order to do that effectively, you had to admit error. You'd had to admit, "I'd done something wrong." And that was one of the things in the culture which was not acceptable. You never admitted you were wrong publicly.
And here, things were terrible, terrible, people criticizing you, et cetera. And you keep on saying I'd never did anything wrong.
BILL MOYERS: Were their car sales falling?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yes, of course. And their perceptions were down, et cetera. But in the meantime, their actual behavior had actually corrected a lot of it, except they didn't know how to tell anybody. (LAUGHS)
It's like if I keep criticizing you and you've changed the behavior but you never say, "Hey, I recognize I was wrong before and now I've fixed it."
BILL MOYERS: So, this is not just a matter of spin. It's not putting a good face on a bad situation.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Oh, no, no, no, no. It was that they were under-valuing their own situation in the public. Their whole attitude about it was hostile.
When they're attacking me, I'm gonna close ranks. Instead of trying to reach out. So we did a campaign in which we talked about improving the quality of General Motors.
But the first sentence of that was about, we know we've had some problems. And blah, blah, blah. And that was like, a major thing. My gosh, General Motor's admitting that they ever did anything wrong, even when the whole public press was about the thousands of things that people were criticizing it for. (LAUGHTER)
BILL MOYERS: I remember those ads. I think they said, "Putting quality on the road."
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yes, yes, yes. (LAUGHTER) Right. That's what it was.
BILL MOYERS: Did that come from market research?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Yes. Of course it did, but the research had been around. There's no new research. That had been around for ages that everybody said the quality was poor. And the Japanese were much better. And that the they were out of touch. And blah, blah, blah. So, there's no new news about that, the research.
That's not the point. The point was when you did in fact, improve factors, which was true, that you found a way to convey it, but that was one of those things where you had to persuade people that it was okay to admit [you were] wrong.
BILL MOYERS: Here we are in a period of global warming. And there's the battle going on over emissions. And everyone's concerned about the environment. What do you think is the future of the automobile 100 years from now, when we will not be around? What do you think is the future of the automobile?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, I mean, I can get even more specific than that. Because from the very beginning, I think General Motors and all the major car companies really understand sustainable success.
It means if you want to be successful, you can’t ignore these problems. The environment is critical. Fuel efficiency is critical. Reducing emissions and all these harmful things are critical. You may not feel the effect this moment. But if you want a sustainable success, you must address them.
So, they have huge resources surrounding this. But interestingly, take just China. When we went into China, China was not particularly environmentally concerned at the time. They have become much more so now. But they weren't particularly concerned. So, they just wanted to get this auto industry going. It used to upset me, because I would see in the paint shop, these young guys would be painting with no masks on.
And you're thinking, God, they must be killing themselves with that. How many years could they live when they're spraying all that paint? But anyway, when General Motors went in, it did take it's best knowledge, and say, "Environmental protection for your workers. When they're spraying paint, you gotta put on the expensive [safety gear], all those kinds of things that are necessary. [Reduce] emissions from the plant. You gotta do that."
The Chinese were not requiring it. But we said, as a company, we gotta do that. In fact, one of our technical people used to say, "I would drink the water that comes of this plant that goes through the whole process. Because they've got that many safeguards."
And also, catalytic converters, that reduce emissions. That wasn't a requirement. But General Motors decided that yes, we gotta put them into our vehicles. So, there were a lot of things that I think, the companies have become much more wise in understanding if we want things to go on, yeah, we could be kind of expedient. And say, "Hey, listen, as long as they don't require it, let's just get out there."
But I think that today, at least General Motors, I know is much more concerned about that. So, what's happening? Yes, there are alternative fuels. And I keep on saying China is probably one of the best places to [use them because] it's, of course very polluted.
It's working hard to try-- by making Shanghai more green, etcetera. But it's a huge job. Because they're trying to develop and build more plants while they're trying to keep the pollution down. Add more cars, save the transportation. But what's gonna happen is, in kind of top down, command and control markets, which are not totally free markets yet, which China is not, it's much easier to say, "All busses will have to be alternative fuels." Or we'll put X percent will be electric, or whatever. That can happen and already is happening. There are cities in China that are requiring that all the busses get converted. So, that's happening.
BILL MOYERS: That's intriguing.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: So what has to happen is that the knowledge has to get conveyed. So, if fuels cells are coming or alternative fuel, the knowledge as to what helps needs to get exchanged, so then, China will actually be able to implement it a lot easier than America can because we're much more of a free market.
You put it on the market. And nobody wants to buy it. What do you do? But over there, they can just say, "It's the rule. And everybody does it." (LAUGHTER)
BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much, Shirley.
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, I've enjoyed having a chance to do this.
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