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Honeywell CEO Dave Cote has two tips for doing business in China

AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi
Dave Cote opens a Honeywell facility in Bangalore. If you want a warm reception, treats people with respect, he says.
By S. Mitra Kalita
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Foreign companies don’t quite know what to make of China’s leadership transition. Maybe that’s why Honeywell CEO David M. Cote’s simple advice tonight—telling businesses not to overthink their overseas strategy—made so much sense.

Honored by the Asia Society at a fundraiser in midtown Manhattan, Cote’s speech took the crowd back to his more than 30 years working in the region, including times when “inedible” liver would just sit on his plate. (Some people in the crowd of Asiaphiles gasped but his candor and New England pronunciation of “Chiner” were kind of endearing.)

His remarks also came as the 18th Party Congress entered its second day of deliberations. China’s incoming leadership is largely expected to be conservative on political and social reforms.

If this spooks you, take comfort in two pieces of advice from Cote, who oversees the large multinational conglomerate that makes everything from thermostats to flight-management systems.

First, “treat people with basic respect,” he says. If you offer at least that, cultural differences, business practices, and linguistic hurdles start to matter less. Americans especially, quips Cote, are forgiven for knowing little about any other culture but their own.

Second, “a country’s culture is not homogeneous.” Cote recalls a conversation he had with someone who felt Honeywell’s values were incongruous with the culture of China:

“Do all people in China think the same way?” he asked.
“Are there 1.3 billion people in China?”
“Are there, maybe, 500 of them who think like us?”
“Good. Find me those 500 people.”

By now, Cote told the crowd, Honeywell has found many, many more, employing at least 8,000 people in China.

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