ERGO in China: The potential of cultural differences

People & stories, 15.01.2019

ERGO has been active on the Chinese market for around five years - with life, health and accident products specially developed for the growing middle class in China. On this anniversary, we asked the CEO of ERGO China, Juergen Schmitz, for an interview.

ERGO in China

With 97 million of inhabitants, Shandong is the third-largest domestic insurance market and therefore it has been the headquarter of ERGO China Life in Jinan for around five years. The joint venture, which ERGO operates jointly with the state-owned financial investor SSAIH, sells mainly capital-accumulating life insurance policies with death cover, as well as products that provide hospital treatment; in some cases, accident products, via a sales channel with independent and employed intermediaries.

Mr. Schmitz, what brought you to China in the first place? Is it easy for Europeans to live in China? Did you have to learn Chinese before you relocated to China?

My affiliation with China started long before the relocation, back in my time at the university. With my academic background of Sinology, I have a natural connection to this country. My great interest in China also led me to a one-year exchange program at Peking University and numerous other stays in China before I started my professional life.

At ERGO, my frequent travels to China started in 2012 and I almost travelled to China monthly for the setup and development of our life insurance joint venture. In May 2017, the first step was taken to establish China as an independent growth region within ERGO and I moved there with my family.

Every relocation costs time and effort, especially when the destination is very different from the home country. When it comes to the question of living in China as a European, it is hard to generalise. China consists of different regions with different stages of development. For example, Beijing, China’s political centre, and Shanghai are the modern and partially multicultural metropolises with large expat communities and you will be able to explore these cities easily as a newcomer.

In China, it is especially important to understand the local culture and customs, which is one of the first steps to gain access to the local community. Chinese is for sure not a simple language and being able to read the Chinese characters is crucial to learn the language - it would be the icing on the cake if you could ace the language.

So, in ERGO China, Chinese and German colleagues work closely together …

Right, this cultural mix is one of the key features of our team! The differences between German and Chinese culture can be found anywhere and anytime: the ways of communication, the manners and, of course, the languages. We all speak English here, but we need to ensure that we really have a common understanding of our tasks and work procedures. Such differences make the work challenging but also very interesting. We are making great progress in adapting to each other.

How about daily business? What are the most important cultural differences between Germany and China?

I would say the way of managing projects differs. For example, Chinese are more result-oriented, while Germans pay more attention to planning.

Germans start with a target, including timeline preparation, to determine the feasibility and risks of the project. They intend to have a complete evaluation before project kickoff, whilst Chinese would like to act as soon as possible once the objective and a general direction are set. The next step is defined during the current step, based on the achieved and changing status. Chinese are agile and open to a change of approach during the implementation process as long as the result is achieved.

Why do you think there is such a cultural difference?

It is impossible to give a general reason for the cultural differences and their impact on the way we work. One explanation could be that China is a very fast changing and dynamic emerging market, which is full of opportunities. Many changes can happen overnight. That is why people are always willing to fight for every single opportunity in order not to miss any potential. The process is often very dynamic, and it is not easy to predict exactly the outcome in the initial stage.

As you know, Germans are known to work very logically and precisely. That is why planning is the crucial part of every project. Mostly, the implementation should closely follow the plan developed prior to project kickoff.

There are also many similarities between the way Germans and Chinese work: Both Germans and Chinese are considered to be disciplined and hardworking. With a great sense of responsibility, we are both dedicated to problem solving and the achievement of goals even under great pressure. Both Germans and Chinese can be very direct, which is very helpful for open and interpersonal communication.

At ERGO China we always try to combine the benefits of the precise German working style and the agile and flexible Chinese working style. In other words, we use cultural diversity as the advantage for ERGO.

After all, what would be the most important piece of advice for our colleagues who are interested in working in China?

"Be open and embrace the challenge!"

Author: Eva Fung

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