Torbjörn Sternsjö got stuck in China. Three years became 13 and recently he was awarded for his achievements.
Sapa Chalco’s CEO Torbjörn Sternsjö, thought that he might someday spend a little time working abroad, but the Norrköping, Sweden native never dreamed that he would live in China for so many years.
“I said ‘yes’ in 1999 to an offer to work as General Manager and start up Sapa Heat Transfer in Shanghai,” he says. “My contract was for a maximum of three years, but I got stuck here!”
Today, Sternsjö is the CEO of Sapa Chalco Aluminium Products and he is in the process of re-locating from Shanghai to Chongqing in Southwest China. The move takes him to yet another new environment – one that is quite different from the cosmopolitan Shanghai that he has become familiar with.
“Chongqing is also a big city (10 million people and 20 million including the surrounding areas), but it is perhaps 10 years behind Shanghai in many aspects,” he says. “There is a ‘go west’ attitude towards Chongqing and a desire to develop this part of China where there are new market opportunities and lower costs.”
“The entire country is being transformed”, he adds. “There is a real entrepreneurial spirit here and things are constantly changing. It’s a very dynamic environment where there is constant activity and at the same time, opportunities to meet many different people and learn new things. At the same time, it can be difficult to keep up with such rapid changes.”
Trying to keep up generally means working too much, which Torbjörn Sternsjö says is common for most people living abroad and working for a foreign company. Due to the time differences, expats tend to work in the day and be interrupted by telephone calls and emails in the evenings, he says. “As the work becomes more and more global, many people are expected to be available 24 hours a day.”
But the hard work has paid off. Sapa has been able to grow with the market and maintain a high market share despite tough competition. “We were really pioneers when we came to China in 1999,” says Torbjörn Sternsjö. “There was no competition, but we struggled with what was then a very small market for our products. At that time, there were under a million cars produced, but today, the country produces 16 million cars a year.”
He can also be proud of a personal achievement: In 2010, he received Shanghai’s Honorable Citizenship Award. The award, granted by the Shanghai City Hall, honors expatriates who have contributed to the development of the city.
Torbjörn Sternsjö describes himself as energetic in business, but otherwise relaxed, and says today, his management style is a combination of Swedish and Chinese ways. “Some people from Sweden may think I’m too authoritarian, while the Chinese may think I’m too Swedish – on the cautious side and concerned about consensus!”
He has learned some Chinese, but says that fortunately for him, being “more of an engineer than a linguist,” English is becoming increasingly popular among his suppliers and customers. “The Chinese are quite open and ambitious and they want to learn new things, especially English,” he says. And miscommunication is not always a matter of language, he points out. “It’s a matter of understanding behaviour too. When I was working as general manager, it was important for me to surround myself with good local management as it was sometimes hard to understand the Chinese business codes and what people really meant.”
As an example, he points out that the Chinese are often less direct in their communication with foreigners, as they don’t want to cause embarrassment or offend. Moreover, personal relationships are very important for doing business in China, while business is a little more impersonal in the western world. Nonetheless, after all of the years in China, Torbjörn Sternsjö has adopted some Chinese ways: “Now I’m also rushing into elevators before people come out,” he says laughing. “Rushing into an elevator or onto a bus without queuing is typically Chinese.”
He adds that this trait probably comes from the competitive environment in China, where no one wants to be left behind. “But I think China will see a change regarding this,” he says. “There is still a huge population and there will still be tough competition for some time, but I think the Chinese are becoming more international – or perhaps ‘urbanized’ is a better word to describe it.” Cari Simmons
Torbjörn Sternsjö, CEO Sapa Chalco
Age: 53 Home(s): Shanghai and Chongqing China Family: “Still single.” Leisure activities: Seeing friends and colleagues, golf (a big sport in Asia), participating in Chamber of Commerce activities. Favourite food: Chongqing food, which is quite spicy Languages: Swedish, English, basic Chinese