Which computer maker this year introduced three new tablets, a speedy new smartphone, an edgy new global branding campaign, and the launch of an outer space science competition with Google? Oh, and it also engineered its thinnest and fastest laptop–10-second or less startup time–while producing record financial results and outgrowing the competition for the eighth straight quarter.
If you guessed Apple, HP, or Dell, try again. It’s Lenovo, the computer giant you’ve heard of but probably don’t know much about. For years the company focused on the enterprise market–big companies, school systems, government agencies–and China. Now it’s determined to become that country’s first global consumer brand. “For Those Who Do” is their Nike-like tagline.
Apple, HP, and Dell certainly know Lenovo. Lenovo, led by CEO (and as of this month also chairman) Yang Yuanqing, has been on a tear. Last quarter, it passed Dell to become the world’s second-largest PC-maker. Only HP sells more gear. Lenovo’s third-quarter profit of $144 million is up 88% from a year ago.
I traveled to Beijing, and then deep into the rural hinterlands to explore Lenovo as part of Fast Company‘s year-long series on China. What I discovered is a company like no other: a product of Communist China (the government still owns 36% of its parent, Legend Holdings) that is heavily influenced by the West and boasts an international workforce of 27,000 employees and customers in more than 160 countries. Lenovo is ubiquitous in its homeland, with more than 15,000 stores in cities and even the smallest villages. That’s almost as many locations as Starbucks has worldwide, nearly twice as many locations as Wal-Mart, and roughly 14,700 more stores than Apple has.
Slideshow: Lenovo’s China
The company is in the midst of another critical transition. Cofounder Liu Chuanzhi retired this month as chairman. He’s China’s Sam Walton or Henry Ford, a business pioneer whose remarkable journey parallels the evolution of China’s economy. In 1984, as the country was loosening control to spur growth, Liu and nearly a dozen colleagues, all government scientists, started a business that not only survived early upheaval and fierce multinational competition but came out of nowhere in 2005 to purchase IBM’s PC business. The acquisition was so ambitious that the Chinese media referred to as a snake swallowing an elephant.
This is not the China of knockoff sneakers and cheap microwave ovens. This is an increasingly sophisticated China that makes high-quality products and high-quality hires, from Apple, Microsoft, and Harvard Business School. If you think the Chinese have a head start in solar panels but it’ll take years to focus their competitive energy in other industries, Lenovo, which generates $21 billion in annual revenue, shows how far China has come–and how quickly it’s adapting.
As Liu, 67, said last week in his opening remarks at the U.S.-China Business Leaders Summit held at the University Club in New York, “We learned on our own.” There were no business schools or business books or business mentors in China when he and his colleagues set out. They learned by trial and error and, eventually, from the competition. “We cribbed your recipes,” he told the business leaders, prompting ripples of awkward laughter.