Mabu Academy, the Secret Training Camp
Nestled in the forests of northern Taiwan is BenQ's most important training base, where it cultivates the top managers who may one day fill the shoes of superboss K.Y. Lee.
Mabu Academy, the Secret Training CampBy Benjamin Chiang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 402 )
It is late May, and Lin Hwai-min, founder of Taiwan's avant-garde Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, drives his car along Taiwan's provincial highway No. 3 toward Beipu in Hsinchu County. Suddenly, the car veers into a small mountain road at a signpost reading "Mabu Forest."
After driving past a plantation of huge oriental trema trees (known as mabu in Chinese), standing in perfectly straight rows, Lin arrives at Mabu Academy, a four-story postmodern concrete complex nestled among bamboo groves. He is welcomed by BenQ Group chairman K.Y. Lee and more than 40 high-level supervisors at the rank of vice president or above.
Usually it is nearly impossible to get so many top executives together. But this time they have returned to Taiwan from their postings around the globe to participate in a two-day, one-night intensive training course for senior managers.
Underlining the importance of Mabu Academy for the cultivation of the company's promising new talent, K.Y. Lee is lecturing here in person.
On this day course participants are not meant to discuss uninspiring high-tech business strategies, but to hear Lee and Lin talk about their own life experiences.
For more than two hours Lin Hwai-min relays what he has learned over the past three decades during his transition from dancer to artistic director of a world-renowned dance troupe. Then, in a highly uncustomary manner, K.Y. Lee shares the highs and lows of his own life, telling the audience how he started out as a humble engineer at Acer and then jumped at the chance to go into the TFT-LCD industry, how he oversaw a series of mergers at the helm of AU Optronics (AUO) and eventually launched the BenQ brand.
"It's unheard of for K.Y. to tell his own story, how he made it from small-time engineer to chairman and big boss," reveals one AUO executive.
"How are you planning for the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre's post-Lin era?" asks AUO president L.J. Chen, posing the first question with a raised hand. The issue of succession is not only crucial for Lin, but also one of the most pondered problems among Taiwan's outgoing generation of founding entrepreneurs.
In fact, K.Y. Lee has been aware that Taiwan lacks mid- and high-level international management talent ever since BenQ merged with the handset unit of German electronics concern Siemens in 2005.
"In the past L.J. Chen was the one to take the lead in pushing things forward, but now the company group is too large. K.Y. needs to spend time on cultivating top talent to make the younger generation take charge of a business area earlier on," notes a supervisor of Qisda Corporation, the group's OEM/EMS provider. Currently, the BenQ Group boasts revenue in excess of US$22 billion per year and employs some 90,000 people worldwide. If an enterprise has reached such a scale, it needs to have a comprehensive training plan for its top management to be able to keep moving forward.
Lee is deeply aware that his track record – creating an international brand, masterminding large international mergers, and realizing horizontal and vertical integration in the TFT-LCD industry – is rather the exception among Taiwan's corporate leaders. Moreover, he keenly feels the need to pass down his own experiences to middle and higher management within the group to speed up the cultivation of talent.
"The biggest value an enterprise has for society is to discover outstanding talent and to create a winning team," Lee said at a biannual meeting of top management on July 22, vowing in front of almost 100 supervisors to accelerate the training of top-level talent.
Rotating Supervisors to Build Up Hands-on Experience
The BenQ Group's top management development training courses include lectures by Lee and other top executives on their business philosophy as well as case studies by hired outside business management experts. But BenQ also rotates its supervisors through various business units to teach them to put themselves in someone else's shoes and to build their capacity to stay on top of developments in the TFT-LCD industry.
"L.J. represents the best outcome of AUO's supervisor rotation," asserts AUO vice chairman and CEO H.B. Chen. In the nine years since he joined the company, the 45-year-old L.J. Chen has rotated through seven different jobs, gaining a high-level understanding of manufacturing plants, sales operations and factory start-ups, as well as the ability to judge the industry's complex economic cycles.
"At AUO job rotation has already become one way for every supervisor to engage in self-directed study," notes a stock analyst who has observed the company for many years. On the average AUO undergoes an organizational reshuffle every two years so that mid- and top-level managers get practice and experience on different jobs. R&D supervisors are no longer locked up in the laboratory, but get assigned to production lines or sales units to understand bottlenecks in production processes and to learn to closely listen to customer and market demands. "Learning to think from someone else's perspective is a very important part of training for senior management. It also makes AUO very quick and very accurate when making decisions on how to address the economic downturn," the analyst notes.
Amid the current global economic slump, Lee has decided to set up systematic training for his troops to bolster the upper echelons with new talent and be prepared for the next economic revival.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Chinese Version: 明基友達 麻布學堂秘密練兵