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David von Schwerin


I grew up in Austria, then studied Chinese and business in Germany. I first came to China in 2005 to study and do internships. After extensive time in Qingdao and Nanjing, and before actually settling in Shanghai immediately after graduation and starting a career in logistics, I originally thought it's going to be three years, and that's it. But you know how it is. Three years is turning into 5, 5 turning into 10, and then suddenly you're half into the second decade. Now I'm the General Manager of the sales organization for a German logistics provider here in China. And yeah! China became home. I'm happily married with two daughters, 6 and 7 years old. I received my green card in 2018 and have no intention of moving away from Shanghai.


How did you get so interested in China? 


Well, over a few drinks, I would normally tell a funny story, but that would go too far here! So I will start with the actual truth. It was a coincidence I didn't have any really particular interest originally in China, just seemed to be a good idea at the time because in the early 2000th, when I finished high school, China was in the media regularly, and I found that one of the universities had a major in Asian Studies, Business and Chinese. I thought it seemed like a good idea at the time. I applied and got taken and honestly enjoyed every minute of it. It was just simply the right mix of everything, and so that's how I dropped my original plans to study journalism because I've always enjoyed writing and figured I can still take up writing again or while working on my career.


What were your options when you graduated from university?


 During my time at university in China, I did a few internships, and during 1 of the internships in Shanghai, I got offered a position straight after graduation. Actually, things moved quite fast at the time. I flew back to Germany, finished university, and then my thesis and couldn't get back to China fast enough. I had that feeling that I needed to somehow capitalize on my skills before China got swept by people like me, which is kind of silly, but that's how I thought at the time. So there was no master plan or process of weighing the options. It just happened, and I planned to have adventures first for a couple of years and try to still learn as much as I could about how Chinese organizations function about how doing business in China really works. In logistics, we basically are at the center of where almost everything happens.


When you first started in this first job after university, how did you negotiate your first flexpat salary, and how did you keep it moving up till you made some decent earnings?


There was not really much negotiation at the beginning. It was an entry-level, I actually didn't even know my package until I arrived at the office on my first date, which was on April 1st. I still remember it. I was a bit shocked at the beginning, and later I often thought I would do it differently, simply get up, leave, or tried to renegotiate or something, but fast-forwarding 12 years, I say no, it was a very valuable lesson for me. I got my feelings and entitlement beaten out of me on my very first day in the office, and it did so repeatedly afterward. It was a valuable lesson, and I learned to show my worth first rather than expecting something to happen. But during the first two years in my entry-level job, I made a decision for myself when I turn 30, that's my deadline. By that time, I would have had 6 to 7 years of experience professionally in China in that industry. I would know my value and worth, and that's when I wanted to do the next step in terms of package and position, either internally or externally. That's what I did. The opportunity very much came up exactly around the time I set for myself, and it was almost an active development. I believe with persistence, reliability, and loyalty, one shows a good treatment comes by itself, and fortunately, I was very lucky with all my employers so far.


How did you find your first job, and how did you differentiate from the competition?


In the end, it was simply personal relationships. I got approached by my first company’s partner after they went through a major restructuring in the organization. You have to know that our industry is very well connected and you cannot really mess without anybody noticing. Similarly, if you're good and you have a good reputation, you are sought after, and there were trust and respect. A track record that I had built up from my previous assignments and lots of people in my current company knew me from the past, and that's how I got involved and finally landed that job.


If you look back on all these years of experience, what would you say were your key learnings from your sales and marketing jobs?


First of all, it was the mindset of Chinese customers in the service industry. I learned about the demanding nature of Chinese customers, and that's something that is really difficult to grasp for people coming from Europe or the US. The high expectation that customers have towards the service providers to go the extra mile to do things that are maybe not part of the scope in Europe or the US. When you do the same job that it's sometimes really difficult to explain to our people and headquarters in Europe. I'm really talking about doing more than the SOP requires. This commitment is one of the key learnings in working in sales and marketing in the service industry. But the one thing I've learned in general and what I usually tell people is the longer I'm here, the less I actually understand. Or let me rephrase it. I mean, the longer I'm here, the more I understand that things change so fast that I can not 100 percent grasp what is happening at any time all the time. It sometimes makes it very difficult in a business environment because the business environment here is really cutthroat, and the pressure to perform is extremely high. Being modest and accepting to not always be in control is especially hard when you get thrown into this shark at a very young age. It was easy to turn cynic there. But every time now and then, I believe it's necessary to remind oneself and to shrug it off and think of that basic truth that it's more honest than pretending to have an answer for everything. 


You do work in China, and your customers are Chinese, so what's the value of your Chinese language skills?


Language skills help you to emerge in your role, get a better feel, and an emotional connection with both your coworkers and your customers. That can also magnify your expertise, and even in an international city like Shanghai, there are so many things in conversations that get lost in translation if you don't speak Chinese. People simply express themselves better in their native language, so listening skills are even more important than speaking. Reading between the lines to get the hints and references connected to culture and humor but also practical things like being able to read and understand contracts. It's crucial for a job like this. But! And that’s a big but! After all, without the professional know-how and expertise, the language itself would not have much value. 


If you look a little bit to the future, how do you see your flexpat lifestyle to go on? You're in your mid-thirties now, so what do you plan for the next 20 years?


 I'm normally not the type for crazy moves, but who knows. I mean, as long as I can live comfortably with my family here in China, I’d say I stay. But, of course, with the usual 3 to 5 years to develop each career step, but I could very well see myself in China in 20 years' time as well.

We saw many of your articles about the green card and other parts of your life in China, but if you were to go back 12 years and you've come here just off the boat, what would you do differently if you had the chance to start again?


In short, nothing. Well, maybe only a few details here and there in small situations where I could be wiser. But overall, I think I would do the same thing again, and even though I had my doubts over and over again over the years. It's also important to revisit the achievements and acknowledge your own success and cherish these achievements. It’s very easy to be discontented and unhappy in places like Shanghai, actually. People compare themselves too much, especially in the beginning. It's too easy actually to overlook the struggle and hard work that is behind every successful person in this city, and it's not an easy place to be successful. 


Is logistics a good industry for flexpats to start their career in China?


Certainly! I mean, our industry has a variety of possibilities for entry-level jobs, so that's how I started. Because we're connected to so many countries in trading, so very often, an entry-level job practice is to start as a trading manager. Global logistics companies have major key trade lanes with all big countries in Europe or the US, so there are lots of opportunities for people speaking the language of the counterpart country. Start your career in a job like that for 2-3 years and then decide on where you want to go. 

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