GSA Technology’s Tina Lin
Headmistress of Machining
Petite yet bursting with energy, this Taiwanese sales superwoman has held her own in China’s male-dominated, heavy-drinking business culture, and single-handedly conquered the China Market.
Headmistress of MachiningBy Jin Chen
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 520 )
In China’s machine tool industry, Tina Lin is a household name. Customers affectionately call her “Big Sister Tina” or “Headmistress.” In fact, her role is more similar to Santa Claus.
GSA holds a dominating position in the Chinese market for CNC rotary tables, computer-controlled high-precision devices used in metalworking. It is Lin, general manager of China sales, who pushed the company to such enviable performance.
At a height of just 150 cm, Lin is smaller than the average Taiwanese woman. But belying her petite stature Lin surprises with a powerful voice and boisterous laughter. She has an outgoing, bubbly personality, talkative and engaging.
Wearing high heels, Lin walks as fast as she talks. As if delivering on her motto, “Go go go,” Lin closes deals worth hundreds of millions of Taiwan dollars per year, amounting to about 40 percent of GSA revenue.
“She’s too old!” was the first thought that popped into the mind of the GSA Technology owner when he saw Lin’s job application. The typical sales assistant is a woman in her twenties or thirties. But Lin, born in 1964, was already 41 when she applied for a sales assistant position at GSA Technology, mainly because the company is close to her home. Following the job interview, the boss remained concerned about her age, but his wife saw that Lin had what it takes to succeed in sales. “This woman will become a great businesswoman,” she predicted, insisting that Lin be hired.
Having always worked in accounting and finance, Lin was a complete newcomer to machinery. While she was busy with various clerical tasks like typing orders and shipping goods during the day, Lin toured the factory in the evening, pestering the technicians with questions and jotting down their answers on a notepad. Within a short time she had leafed through the product catalog so often that it began falling apart.
Within just three months, Lin became a complete product insider. When customers called she was able to fluently rattle off the product information: functions, price, delivery time and more, so that callers would often believe they were talking to a veteran salesperson.
Even experienced salespeople usually need to visit their customers before they can confirm orders. But Lin often managed to persuade consumers to place orders just by talking to them over the phone. So it should not come as a surprise that the boss began to notice her.
A year later Lin became a full-fledged sales rep, the only woman in an all-male team. As Lin does not speak English, she was assigned to the China market. So this petite Taiwanese lady went off to China to “go go go.”
GSA had done business in China before, but due to an agent’s misbehavior, the company had been black-listed by nearly all their customers.
In the beginning Lin ran her head against a brick wall wherever she went. The customers would tell her, “You don’t need to come. We don’t use your products.” Lin, however, did not lose hope and was not worried about losing face. She doggedly went once, and then twice, and returned month after month.
Drinking Her Way to the Top
During her first two years in China, Lin criss-crossed the entire country, flying back and forth between more than two dozen domestic airports, traveling more than 200 days a year. She did not even shy away from boarding a small aircraft with just 12 seats to fly to the remote city of Qiqihar in China’s northeastern Heilongjiang Province.
When customers participated in a trade exhibition, she was the first to show up at the venue. Soon she found out that the Chinese were keen to chat about Taiwanese politics, so the apolitical Ms. Lin began to dutifully watch news reports, so she could entertain her customers.
On a single business trip, she had to see more than a dozen customers, always bringing bags full of souvenirs from Taiwan such as pineapple cakes and Kaoliang liquor. “I had to lug terribly heavy luggage,” recalls Lin. Each time when she called on a customer, loaded with bags full of gifts, she would enter the office with a smile saying, “Mrs. Santa Claus is here.”
“I earned my sales record through drinking,” Lin recalls.
Heavy drinking is an integral part of business culture in China. When sitting down to a business dinner, it is de rigueur to first down three shots of liquor. With one toast following another, some people may pass out before the food is served. Lin often returned to her hotel in the middle of the night only to throw up into the toilet bowl. However, the next day she would get up an hour early to cover up any traces of the drinking spree. Perfectly made up and beautifully dressed, she would tackle the new day with her trademark vigor and vivacity.
Lin quickly racked up sales. It didn’t take long before she posted monthly sales in the order of NT$80 million, while her supervisor sold just NT$3 million worth of goods. As a result, Lin quickly climbed up the career ladder from assistant to department chief, deputy general manager to general manager. She received a promotion every year for five years in a row.
A salesperson must zero in on procurement staff and win them over by every available means. Lin went all the way. Instead of only befriending procurement staff, she would introduce herself to every single employee at all echelons of a company, from the R&D team to the production line.
Lin’s super saleswoman skills have won her admiration from her Chinese customers. “Big Sister Lin works the hardest. Throughout the entire machine tool industry, she has quite a reputation,” says Wei Yilin, head of sales at Shenyang Machine Tool Co. Ltd. (SMTCL). “If only our salesmen were as good as her.”
However, Lin’s high-pressure, hard-drinking business trips eventually took a heavy toll on her health. Two years after venturing into the China market, Lin’s immune system began to rebel against her lifestyle. She suffered from severe skin allergies and prolonged colds that would not go away.
Realizing that she could no longer cope with the travails of extended business trips, she decided to bring her Chinese customers to Taiwan.
Of course, this new approach was a big gamble. Having gotten the go-ahead from her boss, Lin put together organized tours for Chinese clients. She did all the preparatory work by herself, from sending out invitations to putting together tour groups of anywhere from 20 to 30 people, to arranging food, accommodations and a one-week itinerary. Lin, a Virgo, admits to a streak of perfectionism, obsessing over every last detail.
When preparing to meet one of her tour groups at the airport, Lin hires a stylist for her make-up and hairdo, and she dresses to the nines. Upon arrival, the visitors are greeted by a welcome banner and showered with little gifts. Lin has organized seven tour groups over the past four years, yet she has never bought the same gift twice.
Lin also splashes out for dinners, which usually take place at a restaurant on the 85th floor of the skyscraper Taipei 101, where the view and the ambiance are the best the city can offer, and a banquet for 12 costs NT$30,000.
Good Food, Good Hotels, Lots of Gifts
The banquet table is decorated with place cards, beautiful flower arrangements and balloons. On top of that, there are flower bouquets with a cute pair of teddy bears in bride-and-groom outfits, to be taken home by each guest after dinner. The guests are delighted to be treated to a “wedding banquet.” Lin can be sure that her lavish hospitality will create plenty of word-of-mouth once her impressed guests have returned home.
Lin ferries her group to Kenting National Park, well aware that none of them are prepared for a swim in the sea. So the tour bus stops right in front of a store with swimwear and beach paraphernalia, as Lin prods her charges: “Pick swimming trunks, bathing suits and beach wear as you like. GSA will foot the bill!”
Aside from eating good food and staying in nice hotels, the Chinese visitors are treated to little surprise gifts each night when they return to their rooms. On the first day, they are presented with a unique thank-you letter, which is followed by a different gift every day, such as Taiwanese delicacies, Kaoliang liquor and so on.
“When they go home, each of them carries big bags full of gifts. They all have excess baggage, but we always pay for that,” explains Lin. Despite her assertions, most guests are quite considerate and try to avoid excess baggage charges by carrying as much as possible in their carry-on luggage.
Lin’s extrovert personality began to show as early as junior high school. As a result, leadership roles such as class activity leader often fell on her shoulders. She is clearly in her element on sightseeing tours with her customers. “Except for when the travel guide explains the sightseeing spots, I do all the talking,” she declares proudly.
Lin does her best to keep the atmosphere boisterous, acting “like a maniac.” Her customers on the junket start calling one another “classmate” and address her as “headmistress.” After a week of travel, guests and host are perfectly happy. Lin knows her visitors will pay her back for the pleasurable trip with orders worth hundreds of times the company’s expenses.
Won’t others try to copy her approach to boosting sales? “That would be really difficult. They wouldn’t be able to create the same kind of atmosphere, which would only make things worse,” Lin explains with unbroken confidence.
Jin Futong, a department head at SMTCL, recalls the first time he worked with GSA. At the time his company was in urgent need of CNC machine tools, but other suppliers were not able to deliver within the desired timeframe. So Jin placed rush orders with Lin. Typically, filling a big order of more than 100 CNC rotary tables will take four to five months. But Lin was able to commit to delivery in batches within just three months.
When she hears what Jin has said about her, Lin begins to laugh, and reveals the secret behind her turbo delivery: “I have many informers who keep their eyes and ears open.” Often when customers call to place “rush orders,” Lin has already heard the news through the industry grapevine and ramped up production in advance, staying cool under pressure.
Lin’s competitors play the technology card when selling their machines. “What I play is the human card,” quips Lin, breaking into yet another good hearty laugh.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz