The long and winding road to success

By Gao Yuan(China Daily)
Updated: 2015-06-12 09:09:46

Jean Liu, president of the country's largest car-hailing company. [Photo/CFP]

Car-hailing company boss shares her customer-centric approach and challenges of balancing work with family

Jean Liu, president of the country's largest car-hailing company, was celebrating her 37th birthday on the day China Daily interviewed her. Liu's office could barely fit four people at a time, roughly the same capacity as a regular Beijing cab.

At her office, however, there were no signs of any party. A prolonged business meeting had made her almost miss lunch. Two bouquets and a navy-blue gift box bound with purple ribbons were the only suggestion that someone was having a special day.

Liu was busy figuring out ways to end the traffic jams that have been clogging many Chinese cities for decades. If successful, Liu and her car-hailing company Didi Kuaidi will end up saving several hours of commute time each week for hundreds of millions of office goers and also earn a handsome profit for investors.

But in private, the mother of three and daughter of Chinese technology guru Liu Chuanzhi is also interested in discussing parenting experiences, fitness skills and life wisdom from books.

"Running a startup means having very little time to spend with my children. But I alway manage to find ways to connect with them," she said. Liu usually brings little gifts for her 6-year-old son and 4-year-old twin daughters after coming back from business trips. "I will find some shortcuts," she said.

Her career choice looked like a detour for many, however. Liu made an unexpected career change a year ago to become chief operating officer of Didi Dache, ending a 12-year glorious ride with Goldman Sachs that saw her rise to the post of regional director.

The startup, backed by Internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd, was in a fierce battle with Kuaidi, a Hangzhou-based rival funded by Jack Ma's Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. The year-long struggle made each company spend more than 1 billion yuan, in subsidizing drivers and passengers.

The cash-burning fight ended in a dramatic way as the two companies announced a merger plan in February. Liu became president of the new company, working with about 1,000 employees at a rented office building in the northwestern suburb of Beijing. Three kilometers to its west is the global headquarters of Lenovo Group Ltd, the world's biggest personal computer vendor that Liu's father founded when she was about the age of her children.

But Liu never got the chance to work for her father. Unlike many heirs of an affluent family, she needed to find her own career path, something that the elder Liu had decided upon two decades ago.

It was a well-placed bet. Even as Wang Sicong, the son of the country's richest man and Dalian Wanda Group Chairman Wang Jianlin, is trading jabs at celebrities on social media, Liu is zealously building the next Lenovo in the transportation service industry.

Didi Kuaidi app on a mobile phone. [Photo/CFP]

"Didi Kuaidi is already the world's largest transportation service platform in terms of the number of rides and customers served each day. China is the largest market worldwide and we are essentially building a taobao.com in the transportation industry," Liu said.

"We will achieve our dream step by step."

Though Liu spoke extensively to China Daily in the afternoon, she still found time after that to interview job applicants and also to take care of other "small matters". The real highlight of her birthday would be in the evening, she said, when she spends quality time with her children. Excerpts from the free-wheeling interview by China Daily:

Many couples in China often rely on their parents to bring up children. Will you also adopt a similar approach?

No. I think that as long as young couples are capable of raising kids on their own, they should do so. Many are forced to seek help from their parents in China because they have to go out and work.

What do you usually discuss with your father?

We talk a lot on the phone and I visit him every week and we have dinner together. We seldom discuss details about company operations. Most of our conversations are about the new trends in the industry and overall strategy. His experience in building a win-win ecosystem and motivating a team has inspired me a lot.

Are you a big spender in your daily life and do you do much online shopping?

No. I am not that much of a big spender and nor do I shop online.

What would you like to do when you have free time?

I have very little free time right now. But when I was working for Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, I used to love going to the gym and taking my children to the supermarket. We had a lot of fun together because they liked all the colorful products on the store shelves.

Your father is a successful investor, why didn't you persuade Lenovo Holdings to invest in Didi Kuaidi?

Frankly, it is something that never occurred to me. Most of our investors came with Temasek Holdings, while many others are waiting for an opportunity (to invest in Didi Kuaidi). Lenovo Holdings and its investment arms are very professional and the only question is if we fit each others' strategy. I am open to investments from Lenovo Holdings. (Laughs)

What in your opinion is a perfect car-hailing application?

It is a difficult question, but I would say ideally it should be an app that enhances the overall user experience. As both drivers and passengers are our customers, we need to have a clear understanding of their requirements. For passengers, obviously the waiting time needs to be shorter, while for the drivers it is all about getting enough orders.

Do you use Didi Kuaidi's services?

Of course, I do. I use it on a weekly basis and I usually book both-the taxi and chauffeur-services.

Have you tried out Uber and other rival services?

Yes.

What has been the biggest change in your life in the past one year?

During the past year, I found that I am now more of a dreamer. I used to be a rational investor but now, knowing that there will be countless barriers ahead, I dare to have a more long-term perspective than before.

What is your ultimate dream for Didi Kuaidi?

To make Chinese people enjoy their daily commuting. We want the company to be the world's largest one-stop transportation service provider. Now it is the largest by scale as we are serving millions of customers every day. We believe in three years' time we will be able to offer high-quality transportation service to over 30 million users each day and a vehicle will reach the passenger within three minutes in every major Chinese cities.

What is the core competitiveness of Didi Kuaidi?

We believe that we are sitting on a huge amount of user data, which can be very handy for customer behavior analysis.

From an investor's perspective, tell us why your company is a good candidate for investment?

I can think of three points. First, as a domestic player, we know about the demand from our users and drivers in the network better than anyone else. The scale of our network enables us to deliver highest quality transportation services at the lowest cost. As a full-service platform that offers varieties of services, including taxi, limo, ride-sharing and even buses, we have the synergies that the other players do not have. Our network has the most vehicles, shortest time of arrival and the lowest cost for passengers and the highest hourly income for drivers. Second, we process multiple amount of data compared to anywhere else in the world. Our big data technology is the core competence that helps us perpetually improve the efficiency. Third, we have the best team in this market which has been tested through the most fierce competition since the founding of the company.

The authorities, however, seem to be having second thoughts on car-hailing services. What are the major regulatory risks?

We would like to help the government solve the problems. From the information I received, the policymakers understand the benefits (of car-sharing business) to the cities. The biggest headache right now is how to make every player in the industry happy and we are already making meaningful progress.

Jean Liu's Bio

Year of birth: 1978

Career:

Goldman Sachs, various posts (2002-2014)

Didi Dache, chief operating officer (2014)

Didi Kuaidi, president (2015)

Education:

Bachelor's degree in computer science from Peking University (1996-2000)

Master's degree from Harvard University (2000-2002)

Family:

Married, three children

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