Lessons in crisis management: insight from South China
Dr. Harley Seyedin is the President of the American Chamber of Commerce in South China and of Allelon Energy Systems. Building a low-carbon infrastructure development business, Seyedin has always sought to promote a development model that is sustainable socially, environmentally and economically. He was recognised with the Oslo Business for Peace Award in 2017.
We reached him at his office in Guangzhou, China to talk about the role of business leaders in aiding in the global recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic — and the value of a good crisis plan.
Note: This article is also a Facebook live video if you want to watch that.
Edit: As of June, the amount raised has increased to over 40 million.
How has the crisis affected your business?
Covid-19 has affected every business. We were shut down from 15 January, and offices reopened by the last week of February. In my organisation, everyone was working from home. We had been working with our member companies for the past fifteen years on a plan in case of an epidemic so that they would be prepared. We were perhaps the least affected companies in China as a result of that.
I remember an article from 2006 written by Keith Bradsher, who at the time was the bureau chief for the New York Times in Hong Kong. In that article, he talked about the possibility of an outbreak in 2006. I discussed with him the possibility of not if an outbreak will happen, but when.
Thanks to that discussion, we did a survey of our companies on how prepared they were and we found out that they were not. We are not as affected by this outbreak because we had a plan. Our preparedness and our willingness to face the problem head-on has helped keep our employees safe. We have worked hard — from home.
You have been doing a lot of work in response to the global pandemic to help those in immediate need. Can you tell us about the initiatives you’ve been doing with the Chamber in this regard?
Our first priority was to raise money. Regardless of the wealth level of a country, there are those that are not caught up and have been left behind. We have raised $38 million USD, which has been distributed to those who need it most in China, Cambodia, and the U.S. We also distributed over one million USD to frontline workers. Business has an obligation to move ahead and not wait for direction. We cannot wait for governments to take action; they have their own priorities. Business has an obligation to fill the void, to continue to secure the supply chain.
One of the many studies we have done this year was in March, and focused on the supply chain. The study raised the alarm that 32% of the 237 companies we surveyed in China were already facing shortage of materials or were already empty. A good portion of these products were to be shipped to Asia, Europe, and the U.S. We need to guarantee that continual movement of supplies.
We are helping people with immediate needs like masks and supplies, and helping to make sure the supply chain is open and operational. Most of our member companies are now fully operational again. There are some that are not, but that is because there are 50,000 expats who have not been able to return to China yet. We are working with several authorities on that to try to find ways to get production back up to the top level.
How have you as a leader responded with regards to your team? What sort of leadership demands have been on you?
We have an excellent team. Everyone here recognises that the problem is everybody’s problem, and no one person can do it alone. No country can do it alone.
What I see is that a lot of people are pointing their finger at the politicians for not being as prepared as they perhaps should have been. Every country in the world is staffed with thousands of professionals whose job is to prepare us. We need to re-examine how to change the process so that the people in charge actually have us prepared.
One of the things that I consider the responsibility of business, is that while we try to overcome the current difficulties, we must look forward to the future. For example my partners and I in Allelon Energy Systems, built a power plant in a poor area of China in 1993. That area developed as a result of having electricity, and they became one of the most well-off areas of China.
We reduced our carbon footprint of the city by recently decommissioning that plant. We took care to make sure that the land was redeveloped and turned it into one of the world’s largest medical instrument development and manufacturing centres. We will be investing in similar projects, and this one will create 35,000 high-skilled jobs. It will house a research development centre, university branches, and all kinds of things that can help solve the current and future problems.
How do you hope the world changes in the aftermath of this crisis?
There is a fire burning in each and every one of us. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, what country you’re from. None of that matters. That fire is to give our children a better life than the one we have ourselves. Every investment I’ve ever made, I’ve always kept in mind that whoever is touched by my investment, is going to have the ability to give their children a better life than they have. I think that I have achieved that in every one of my investments.
If we go forward with that in mind, then all of the questions of a better environment, global warming, world hunger, all of these things will have been answered, because our focus will have been to create a world where ALL of us can give our children a better life than we had.
If we make that a reality for everyone, we will not worry about wars, hunger, or the environment. Whatever you do, whatever your investment, has to have this in mind.
This interview is a part of a series highlighting #businessworthy efforts in response to covid-19 and has been edited for length and format. Watch the full interview here: https://www.facebook.com/businessworthy/videos/2880110645413004/