Interview with Jimmy Rasmussen, Group Senior Marketing Director at Grundfos, about How to Lead in China

This is the second part of a series of two articles that tell the story of Jimmie Rasmussen, Group Senior Marketing Director at Grundfos. It tells the story of his exciting journey to China, teaching him the Chinese language, culture, and leadership styles.

Discover why this experience had such a profound impact on him and what key lessons he learned.

In the first article (1), we explore his experiences as a Westerner adapting to life in China, delving into the complexities of mastering the language and embracing the cultural nuances.

In this second article (2), we delve into Jimmie’s leadership role within both a Chinese company and an internationally operating company in China. Here, he skillfully navigates the dynamics of leading a Chinese workforce.

Becoming a Leader in China

Kim Buch-Madsen: You went to China as a Dane without a job and not knowing the language. Then you learned the language from scratch and worked in China for 9 years as manager of a Chinese language school, a German food company, and a Danish pump manufacturer. What happened?

Jimmie Rasmussen: In Miracle Mandarin (the language school) I learned a lot about leading in a Chinese context and I developed a lot linguistically, because I had to. After all, all 86 employees were Chinese and only a few spoke English.

Gradually, I realized that much of what I had learned in Europe did not work in a Chinese business context, I had to manage on Chinese terms, I wanted to become better at doing business in China, build a better Chinese network, and the same time get a more theoretical perspective, get more tools in the toolbox.

So, I took an Executive MBA at a China European Business School (CEIBS). They have many nationalities and a global outlook, yet focus on China, the Chinese business climate, and Chinese cases. It’s one of the world’s most expensive Executive MBAs and No. 2 on the Financial Times ranking, and it was my largest investment, financially and personally.


EXPLORE ALSO: Living and Leading in China – The Chinese Way 1: Learning the Chinese Culture


These 2 years of demanding studies, besides my full-time job as a manager, were very hard but totally worth it. The common denominator was “unlearning”, making space for new insights and amplifying the outcomes of my daily work. I gained completely new insights and tools about the culture, history, and business context of China, and in addition, I built new networks, close relationships, and good friends. We helped each other a lot, and that became crucial for my years in China.

Living and leading in China – The Chinese Way - How to Lead in China
Group Senior Marketing Director, Jimmie Jørgensen, – seated on the far right.

While I studied at the Executive MBA and worked as General Manager for Miracle Mandarin, the Chinese language school, I was contacted by the 100-year-old German food company IREKS, who was looking for a general manager to build up a business in China to strengthen their entire value chain.

This presented a valuable opportunity to gain expertise in the Chinese market and a deeper understanding of Chinese consumers. The company was German-owned and I was the company’s only foreigner. It was a new cultural journey and once again I had to adjust, absorb, learn, and unlearn.

I established business functions such as HR, marketing, administration, technical sales force, distribution, and so on. I chose to staff exclusively by Chinese, because I wanted to strengthen IREKS’ focus on Chinese consumers and to build cultural bridges. New close Chinese relationships and friendships were established on top of the Chinese network I already had

Getting Headhunted for Grundfos in China

Kim Buch-Madsen: Then you were headhunted for Grundfos, the global Danish provider of pump solutions?

Jimmie Rasmussen: Yes, Grundfos wanted to expand in China and they wanted me to lead the water utility part of their business. It was hard to decide because things went well at IREKS, where I enjoyed the role of general manager. But Grundfos stood out as something unique to me and this was reinforced when I met my future leader and other key people as well as learning about Grundfos values, positioning, and strategy. Grundfos’ Vision for China: Becoming a Premier Brand.

In the ever-evolving landscape of the global market, Grundfos embarked on a transformative journey to establish itself as a premier brand in China. The objective was crystal clear: to offer high-quality products and innovative solutions that would resonate with Chinese consumers. This vision went beyond mere expansion; it aimed to make China a second home market for Grundfos.

Key decisions were made to realize this ambitious dream. A strategic choice was made regarding geographic expansion, leading to the establishment of head offices in both Central and Western China. This move not only reflected Grundfos’ commitment to being present where it mattered most but also signaled the brand’s readiness to take on a pioneering role.


EXPLORE ALSO: 8 Complexity Management Strategies that will Help you Cope


Furthermore, to facilitate its operations across diverse geographic regions in China, Grundfos undertook the significant task of setting up factories and establishing a robust value chain. These critical infrastructural developments were a testament to the brand’s unwavering dedication to delivering top-tier products and solutions across the nation.

For me personally, this endeavor presented a unique opportunity to leverage my experience and contribute to the realization of Grundfos’ vision in China. It was a chance to sow the seeds for a thriving second home market while fostering sustained growth. This alignment of goals and efforts between the board and myself has been the driving force behind our continuous execution of this bold vision.

Physical presence means a lot in China

A strong value chain was and still is very important in China. You need to think holistically and make the necessary investments to show that in addition to a strong product, we have the whole package of physical representation and a sales force that can deliver the service required. That was the main reason to expand geographically. Physical presence, in general, means a lot in China, and it was vital to our Chinese partners and consumers.

This strategy of long-term commitment has made Grundfos one of the most established foreign companies in China. Besides, we were less vulnerable to Covid-19 and the supply chain problems it created. Due to securing the entire value chain, we had a strong footprint in China and had our risk spread in such a way that if one area closed down, there were many other places to operate.

One of the personal footprints I am particularly happy about and proud of is the “Dealers University” we set up in China. It’s a distributor university on a digital platform. We professionalized our Chinese distributors and partners via courses about our products, solutions, values, and customers. They were trained as our in-house salespeople, but with local understanding, presence, and relationships, so that they could act as Grundfos’ extended sales arm, still in the Chinese way and within their local networks.

We did it in a systematic scalable way and it worked out so well that 5 years later, Grundfos is now working to do the same globally.

The Power of China’s Work Culture

Kim Buch-Madsen: What surprised you the most about China?

Jimmie Rasmussen: Unlocking the Power of China’s Work Culture

The Chinese work ethic is a force to be reckoned with, and it’s a testament to their commitment that initially took me by surprise, even provoking some irritation—until I delved deeper into the reasons behind it.

One of the most striking aspects of Chinese work culture is their unwavering dedication. It’s not uncommon to witness colleagues resting their heads on their desks and catching some well-deserved sleep during lunch breaks. At first, this practice might seem peculiar, but it’s deeply rooted in the reality of their daily lives. Many commute from far-off places, enduring hours of travel each way. Combine this with their rigorous work hours, and the need for a moment’s respite becomes clear.

Moreover, the legacy of the one-child policy, which favored boys, has had a profound impact. Women in China often shoulder added responsibilities and challenges. They go the extra mile, feeling a need to prove themselves. This dynamic creates a work environment where determination and resilience thrive.

China’s frugality and long-term thinking are also remarkable. Many are willing to make personal sacrifices today to secure a better future for their families and children. The ability to endure hardship in the present for a brighter tomorrow is a hallmark of their perseverance.

when a task is assigned in China, it gets done swiftly and without fuss

Chinese pragmatism is another standout trait. When faced with obstacles, they exhibit remarkable problem-solving skills. There’s no endless debate or questions; they simply find alternative routes to achieve their goals. This pragmatism fosters an environment of efficiency and productivity.

Speaking of efficiency, when a task is assigned in China, it gets done swiftly and without fuss. There’s a refreshing absence of lengthy discussions or bureaucratic red tape—a stark contrast to the consensus-driven culture I was accustomed to.

I realized the need FOR developing self-starting abilities, independent thinking, taking ownership, and seeing the bigger picture.

However, this efficiency does come with its nuances. Chinese colleagues tend to stick to the task at hand and often refrain from going beyond what’s explicitly asked of them. Consequently, I realized the need to invest time in developing our team’s self-starting abilities, encouraging them to think independently, take ownership, and see the bigger picture.

Kim Buch-Madsen: What Was the most surprising revelation while leading a Chinese company?

Jimmie Rasmussen: How warm-hearted they are when you have invested in building relationships that go beyond the manager-employee relationship and connect on a human level. I remember, for example, a sales director I had who, after a year, referred to me as “sheidu”, which means brother; it became much more than just a working relationship.

The Chinese are also very considerate concerning one’s family. If someone is ill, or the like, there is so much warmth without ulterior motives. It’s like having a supportive family that cares about you and thereto actively seeks to enhance your interactions with Chinese customers.

If you invest yourself, you get so much in return, personally as well as family-wise. It was unique and surprised me a lot. As a manager, I never experienced any attempts to abuse the close, family-like relationships. Now years later, I am still in almost daily virtual contact with my numerous Chinese friends.

‘Power Distance’, Hierarchies, and a Non-Egalitarian Society

Kim Buch-Madsen: What did you experience as the main differences between Western and Chinese management?

Jimmie Rasmussen: Entering the world of Chinese management from a Danish perspective is a journey laden with intriguing differences. At the heart of these differences lies the concept of “power distance,” a notion largely unfamiliar in Denmark’s egalitarian society.

In China, power distance carries a weight that can be perplexing to those unaccustomed to it. Hierarchies are pronounced, and the distance between leadership and employees is more substantial than what we typically encounter in Denmark. The transparency we take for granted in our Western structures, systems, and data often gives way to a more enigmatic landscape in China.

Chinese management operates with a pragmatism and personal touch that can be both surprising and challenging for Westerners. Decisions are often made with an eye on immediate practicality, and relationships play a pivotal role in the decision-making process.

Chinese management is far more complex than what initially meets the eye

What’s truly intriguing is that the essence of Chinese management is far more complex than what initially meets the eye. There’s a richness and complexity hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be unearthed. It’s a realm where hierarchical distances coexist with personal and pragmatic approaches, creating a dynamic unlike anything we’re accustomed to.

For those who embrace this cultural shift and dive deep into the nuances, the rewards can be immense. It’s a challenging yet rewarding journey, similar to discovering hidden gold nuggets.

Venturing into the realm of Chinese business culture, one quickly encounters a landscape starkly different from what we’re accustomed to in Western contexts. The concept of structured processes and data transparency, which we hold in high regard, often takes a back seat.

In contrast to data-driven decision-making, the Chinese often rely on instinct and consensus in their business dealings

Introducing structured data and transparency initiatives can be met with a certain indifference, even though they hold the potential to unveil entirely new dimensions of profitability and growth opportunities. In contrast to data-driven decision-making, the Chinese often rely on instinct and consensus in their business dealings.


EXPLORE ALSO: Discover the Benefits of a Chief Resilience Officer


Some Western practices, such as employee development interviews and team meetings, remain largely unfamiliar concepts in the Chinese business environment. While these tools are integral to fostering growth and communication in Western workplaces, they might not find a place in the Chinese business culture, where a more fluid and instinctive approach often prevails.

Feng Shui at work

My first day as the general manager of a language school left an indelible mark, shedding light on the profound cultural differences at play. Stepping into my new office, I was greeted by a spacious, dimly lit room adorned with Chinese scrolls, a grand mahogany desk, and a comfortable lounge area. It spanned a vast 40-50 square meters, undoubtedly the largest office in the entire establishment.

However, I had a desire to be closer to the heart of the operation, nearer to our teaching staff, the sales team, and the digital development unit.  Could I not relocate to a space more proximate to my team? But that was not an option at all. The reason? A Feng Shui expert had meticulously assessed the building, and my office had been pointed out as the locus of positive energy and positioned best in relation to the corners of the world.

The belief was that my occupancy of this office would bestow success and prosperity upon the company. Intrigued, I inquired further, only to learn that the Feng Shui expert had conducted a thorough assessment of the room’s energy, drawing upon ancient principles intertwined with imperial history. Factors such as positioning one’s back to the mountain and commanding the ideal view held profound significance.

Contrast this experience with my initial days in German and Danish companies, and it becomes abundantly clear that we inhabit vastly different worlds when it comes to cultural norms and practices.

How to Manage Effectively in China

Kim Buch-Madsen: How would you advise on effectively managing a workforce in China?

Jimmie Rasmussen: First, it is very much about being patient. Things take time due to the complexity, the size of the country, and the crucial importance of relationships. Second, be curious and open. Unlearn some of what you brought with you and invest in understanding the culture and the Chinese on their own terms. Thirdly; invest yourself on a human level and build close relationships. Think long-term.

Thereto the language is decisive. If you know the language, it’s not only easier to get by, you will also dramatically increase your understanding of people and context while you will be viewed completely differently by the Chinese.

Finally, it’s a lot about hard work. The commitment to hard work is palpable, and to thrive in this environment, one must keep pace. More than just individual toil, it’s a collective effort that propels you forward. It’s not sufficient to rely solely on clever strategies; you must also match the relentless work ethic exhibited by your counterparts.

Ultimately, the path to success in this realm hinges on embracing hard work as a fundamental pillar of your journey. It is not enough to work smart; you must also work hard like they do.

Building Trust and Relationships is Key in the Chinese Cultural Setting

Kim Buch-Madsen: You’ve emphasized the significance of relationships and trust in China on numerous occasions. Could you please elaborate on this topic?

Jimmie Rasmussen: I think relationships and trust are always very important. Yet, in China, it’s really crucial. For many reasons, relationships and trust are absolutely essential for doing business in China.

You will not find the same structures, transparency, data, and rule of law as we are used to in the West. There are no established channels that ensure efficiency and process, and this applies both commercially and when it comes to public institutions. That’s why you need personal connections and networks to understand things and get things done.

Furthermore, the country is so large, complex, and fragmented that large differences can be observed from province to province and even from city to city. It’s hard to scale and thus, you have to build relationships to do it.

At the same time, it can be muddy and difficult to understand relationships when they go beyond 1-1 and become more about the pattern of networks. Who knows who, how, and where from, what mutual interests lie beneath the surface, etc? You only have your own assessments, networks, and personal relationships when you want to understand things or, for example, establish a kind of due diligence around a business partner.

Finally, there is a risk of being cheated or not getting what you expected in this fast-paced environment. With little transparency, you cannot fully rely on the law. Here too, you need good, trusting relationships to succeed or avoid being exploited.

Physical Presence in ‘on Location’ and a Show of Commitment

Kim Buch-Madsen: You have mentioned the crucial importance of commitment and physical presence when a company wants to expand and scale in China. Any further thoughts on this?

Jimmie Rasmussen: Yes, it is important to think about scaling from the start. Because of China’s size, but also the fragmentation both geographically and culturally. If you want to have a strong position with a product or solution, it requires well-thought-through investments and requires everything to be properly set up from the start. Otherwise, you drown in local competition.

Starting out in China moreover demands a show of commitment from the start. The Chinese are very aware of your presence in their country. They want to see whether you are willing to invest and deliver in the long term or if you are just there for opportunistic short-term profits, to take advantage of them. To approach customers who are questioning your willingness to understand them and your commitment to invest in long-term relationships, you need to prove that you can deliver and have your service and value chain established. That requires muscles and hard work.

This is also about the “white tiger” phenomenon, which implies a historically conditioned critical attitude towards Westerners (“white tigers”) and a quite cunning awareness not to be exploited. In China’s modern business climate, it also applies the other way around. As well as the Chinese, you have to make sure that you are not exploited or cheated.

Finally, there is a latent fear of being cheated by counterfeit products which is also a problem for the Chinese themselves. This is one of the reasons why the Chinese have so many relationship-based sales channels and family-based, local businesses. They try to protect themselves by building close and trust-based relationships.

To deliver on these parameters requires an all-in approach from the start, which cannot be delivered from a remote warehouse or an online sales platform. You have to be there physically to build long-term trust and secure the value chain so that you can demonstrate security of delivery and service.

Kim Buch-Madsen: During this adventurous personal and professional journey, did you ever find yourself on the edge of regret or feeling overwhelmed?

Jimmie Rasmussen: I never doubted that I was on the right track for me. But there have been periods when it was difficult, and there have been nerve-wracking situations where everything was at stake.

There was a time in particular when it was almost impossible to see my way through it financially. I had spent all my savings on first the language school and then one of the world’s most expensive Executive MBAs. As mentioned, these were well-thought-through investments, but at one point I had spent almost a million DKK in a year without an income. My wife’s job made sure we had a place to live, health insurance, and could cover basic costs of living. But then she lost her job.

At one point, our financial situation was so tight that if I didn’t get a job NOW, we couldn’t pay the rent and weren’t even sure we could afford a return ticket to Denmark for us and the children. It was a strange feeling – how had I ended up here at the age of just over 30 years, when I had worked hard all my life and always been financially responsible?

Then, at the very last minute, I was lucky to get the job I needed.

However, that period is a moment in my life that I will always remember. It was a historic low point for my wife and me. We came so close to investing all our savings in a country and then having to go back without bringing anything but learning with us.

Leadership and Courage

Kim Buch-Madsen: The journey you chose took courage. What does courage mean to you and your way of leading?

Jimmie Rasmussen: To me courage is to feel what is right and wrong, daring to stand up for it, and to make decisions based on it. Especially when it is the most difficult decision that may even become political.

Being able to say, “it’s not right what we’re doing here”. To feel your inner compass and follow it in terms of your experiences, values, and what you stand for. Dare to communicate it when you feel something should be done better and also insistent on it. Dare to make decisions and do something you are unsure about. Especially doing something for your employees or customers, knowing that there is a gray area and the framework may not be there or you may break it. Some of the most powerful moments in my time as a leader is when I have dared to enter these gray areas, knowing that it made a huge difference to someone.

I look for courage in my leaders as well as the managers I hire. This makes us free to grow and act with integrity. When I lead with courage, I build confidence in other leaders to do the same. They then see that it’s ok to act and take a risk even if it implies making mistakes. I want to give them the freedom and courage to do so. But it requires that I get the same from my leaders and that is why I look for and appreciate courage at all levels in the organization.

An example is when I returned from China to Denmark to build my team in Grundfos’ global marketing organization. I chose to staff only half of the organization. I wanted only the best and to work long-term. Although I knew that in the first year, we would have to struggle to get things done and probably take some beatings, together, we built the right initial foundation. This investment proved to be successful and paid off in the long term.

Kim Buch-Madsen: Thank you for your time, Jimmie, it has been tremendously interesting to hear about your Chinese venture.

Jimmie Rasmussen: You’re welcome. It was a pleasure. Reflecting on this unique period of my personal and professional life was both fulfilling and deeply emotional.


About Jimmie Rasmussen – Group Senior Marketing Director at Grundfos

Jimmie Rasmussen is a senior executive and an adventurer within global business. After more than 14 years within the security industry, he lost and found himself spending the last 11 years in different leading industries on various continents, working now truly global from the headquarters of Grundfos in Bjerringbro, Denmark.

He holds a Graduate Diploma in Business Administration from Copenhagen Business School, as well as a global executive MBA from CEIBS (China Europe International Business School) in Shanghai. Moreover, Jimmie Rasmussen speaks Mandarin and enjoys the local dialects, and he pushes the boundaries mentally and physically through freeride skiing, diving, mountain climbing, and enduro motorcycling.   


About Kim Buch-Madsen

Kim Buch-Madsen is a former business professor, teaching leadership, strategy, organizational behavior, and international business.

He is now working as an independent advisor, consultant, author, and censor for the Danish Ministry of Education, doing quality assurance at business universities and MBA studies.

Kim Buch-Madsen is the author of several books and articles and thereto a featured contributor at ManageMagazine and Bizcatalyst360. He has worked with the Chinese, traveled Korea, and holds a black belt degree in the Korean martial art Hwa Rang Do. He has thereto won 8 Danish Championships in billiards.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here