Interview with Tyler Godoff from Boston, the first foreign new-hire in Sinotrans’ 60-year history (Part 1/2)

Four years working inside China’s largest state-owned integrated logistics company

Interview part 1 of 2

Tell me about your background and explain how a young man from Boston ended up working for one of China’s most powerful companies

You are right – it is certainly not the norm for a boy from Boston to end up in Beijing, let alone work for a SASAC-level SOE. As early as 5 years old, my parents would find me leafing through National Geographic magazines searching for pictures of China. For some reason, I was fascinated with everything having to do with China. For my thirteenth birthday, my father decided to take me on a father-son bonding trip. Believe it or not, he let me choose the destination – to use his words, “anywhere in the world!” Not a second went by before I shouted, “CHINA!” My father, who had never traveled to Asia before, let out a big “oh no!” This trip in 2000 to Hong Kong and Guangdong Province sparked a lifelong fascination with the Middle Kingdom.

By the time university came around, I decided to mirror what my Chinese peers were doing: studying at top US universities, mastering English and working for leading US companies. During my junior year I studied abroad at Fudan University in Shanghai. In my senior year, I founded a chapter of the non-profit Global China Connection (GCC). GCC connected me with ambitious Chinese and American students and it created an opportunity for me to travel back to China on a student delegation. While on this delegation, I was able to connect with a vice president at Sinotrans. I provided the vice president with the following pitch – you are a company with global aspirations and yet you do not have a global workforce. I would like to fix this problem. How about I join Sinotrans’ new-hire program? Needless to say, he bought the idea, and the rest is history!

Were you particularly interested in freight forwarding and transportation? Why Sinotrans?

I was not searching for a role in a freight forwarding company. Instead, during my senior year, I spent my time trying to land a position in a leading Chinese company. In 2009, companies like Tencent and Alibaba were certainly relevant, but not nearly as powerful as the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs). And that is exactly why I jumped at the opportunity to work for Sinotrans.

How long did you work for Sinotrans, what were your main responsibilities and where were you stationed? Did you live in a foreign compound or did you live “locally?”

I worked for Sinotrans for just under four years. When I joined the company they really had no clue what to do with me. Sinotrans has 100+ divisions and well over 100,000 employees. Placing an American trainee in a “good-fit” division was very low on the list of priorities. Fate would have it though that 9-months after joining Sinotrans the company went through a restructuring. One of the outcomes of the restructuring was the creation of a new division in which I was appointed Director of International Business. In this role I led pre-sales and post-sales support efforts for a portfolio of EPCs, wind energy and oil and gas companies. I was also in charge of maintaining relationships with our vendors i.e. freight forwarders, shipowners and heavy-lift companies. It is through this role that I got to know you, Bo, and your former company, Martin Bencher.

In terms of housing, I lived in two locations during my time in Beijing. Both apartments were what you would consider “local.” I lived on the east 2nd ring and Sinotrans’s HQ was on the west side of that same ring. Because of Beijing’s severe traffic, what should have been a 10-minute drive often took more than an hour. Therefore, I almost always took the subway. The attached photo I took during the morning commute at the Jianguomen Subway stop.

Most Westerners are used to having Chinese helping them with the China market, but seldom dealing with a Westerner inside of a Chinese company. What was that like?

A typical business visit for a Westerner often goes something like this:

  • Visit Chinese partner’s office. Exchange business cards, awkward laughs and brief company introductions. Meet the head of the office for a few minutes.
  • Head to local restaurant for a “traditional Chinese banquet.” Now at a table with 5 – 8 members of the Chinese company, receive the following comments: Oh wow, you know how to use choptsticks! Can you eat spicy? Oh wow, your Chinese is so good [to when you say Ni Hao and Zai Jian].
  • Conclude meeting and agree on 3 concrete next steps.
  • 2 months later, you, the Westerner, is frustrated as none of the steps you agreed upon have been completed. What’s more,  you spend your time leafing through the 18 business cards you accumulated, trying to remember who is who!

I put forward this slightly exaggerated example to make the point that most Westerners have subpar outcomes from their visits to China. I identified this as an issue, and thus spent my time serving as an internal advocate for my clients and vendors. After meetings concluded, I would liaise between the client and the relevant Sinotrans counterpart to ensure next steps were followed through. Often times I would hear my Sinotrans counterpart say, “Oh yeh, we agreed to do that, but we can’t do it.” To this I would counter, “Well, why did you say yes in the first place? Now we are just wasting each other’s time.” It wasn’t that my colleagues wanted to be untruthful, instead, my Chinese peers were afraid of saying no and were uncomfortable with the idea of pushing back. Over time, I got my colleagues to see the value in being frank and upfront in meetings so that outcomes were realized.

Part 2 of this interview will be released next week.

About Tyler Godoff

Tyler Godoff is passionate about creating thriving client relationships, connecting global business leaders and shaping the US-China relationship. Tyler is a MBA graduate of the Yale School of Management and a magna cum laude graduate of Vanderbilt University.

Tyler has six years of account management and business development experience. Four of those years were spent in Beijing working for Sinotrans – China’s leading shipping and logistics companies. At Sinotrans Tyler led pre-sales and post-sales support efforts for a portfolio of multinational clients. Since returning to the States, Tyler has held roles at two early stage tech companies in Boston and San Francisco.

At Yale, Tyler held several positions including graduate representative to the Schwarzman Center Advisory Committee; board fellow to the Yale-China Association; committee member to the Mory’s Association Membership Committee; and student interviewer to Yale SOM’s Admissions Committee.

Tyler previously served as chairman of the Board of Trustees of Global China Connection (GCC). GCC is a student-run non-profit connecting the future leaders of China and the international community. In 2010, Tyler was one of 50 young entrepreneurs selected by the Alibaba Group to attend its Annual Meeting in Hangzhou, China.

A selection of photo’s from Tyler:

sinotrans-headquarters-in-beijing
Sinotrans’ Beijing Headquarters
2010-new-hire-class_m
Sinotrans’ 2010 New Hire Class (I am in the middle)