December 29, 2016 1:15 pm JST
Agents of Change 2017

Jean Liu, driving the ride-hailing phenomenon

Former investment banker is at the heart of the huge success of 'Team Didi'

SHUNSUKE TABETA, Nikkei staff writer

Didi Chuxing President Jean Liu

BEIJING -- Jean Liu, the 38-year old Harvard-educated president of China's Didi Chuxing, the world's largest mobile transport platform, was driving a Didi taxi the other day as part of her company's "leadership training." Every year, Didi's executives must sit behind the wheel to get first-hand feedback.

One passenger was a 20-year-old student. When Liu mentioned that she was the president of Didi, the passenger, showing more interest in his iPhone 7 than in Liu's credentials, complained that she was taking too long to reach his destination.

At the end of the trip, Liu asked why he used Didi. "How else can I go around? I don't want to waste time in buses and subways," he told her.

Liu talked about this experience when she appeared at Vanity Fair magazine's New Establishment Summit in San Francisco in October. "This is the new generation of China," said an animated Liu, dressed in a white designer jacket and black skirt.

"He spends all of his money on Taobao, Alibaba's retail app," Liu said. "Our generation would save up for a rainy day, but they [the new generation] don't care. They don't think they can save up enough to buy property in Beijing anyway so why not just spend?"

It is this surge in consumption and services on which Didi thrives.The company offers up to 20 million rides a day in 400 Chinese cities through taxi hailing, ridesharing and car rental.

"One of the misperceptions about China is that there is no real innovation. 'Aren't they all copycats?' people say. It is absolutely not true. Innovation is everything in China right now," Liu said.

Bright new star

Didi started out in taxi dispatching, originally as Didi Dache, in 2012 and expanded into ridesharing and numerous related fields, rebranding as Didi Chuxing in late 2015. Controlling more than 80% of the domestic Chinese market, it is seen playing a vital role in building new, efficient transportation information systems in the era of the "internet of things."

Strictly speaking, the company was founded by entrepreneur Cheng Wei rather than by Liu herself. But her key contributions to its growth from early on puts her at the heart of what has been called "Team Didi."

She represents a new era of tech leaders, standing in sharp contrast to the male founders of China's big three internet services companies: Baidu, Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings.

Liu joined Didi's management as chief operating officer in 2014, two years after the founding, and was promoted to president the next year. Her leadership saw the company secure generous funding from the likes of Apple and Alibaba. Didi also reached a merger agreement with compatriot Kuaidi Dache in 2015. And in August 2016, the company announced it would buy the Chinese operations of U.S. giant Uber Technologies. Didi would not have enjoyed the fundraising and acquisition streak without Liu, say analysts.

Like father, like daughter

A Beijing native, Jeann Liu was born in 1978. Her father, Liu Chuanzhi, later founded Lenovo Group and built it up into one of the world's major personal computer manufacturers.

"He gave me a global perspective," she told the Nikkei Asian Review. He also instilled in her a fighting spirit, not least of all by insisting that he would not allow his children to inherit Lenovo. Her career has been driven by a desire to surpass her father's achievements.

That spirit is perhaps evident in the fact that she interned at Lenovo rival Compaq. And as president of Didi, she calls the shots at a company that towers over rival CAR Inc., a car-rental business in which Lenovo's parent company has a stake.

After graduating from Peking University, Liu earned a master's degree in computer science at Harvard University. She joined investment bank Goldman Sachs in 2002, became an executive director at Goldman Sachs Asia in 2008 and managing director in 2012.

She recalled the impact of Goldman's culture of teamwork, noting how a colleague in New York responded nonchalantly to her 3 a.m. phone call requesting emergency help. The overall approach, bringing colleagues together to meet an array of challenges and pulling off one success after another, has proved vital at Didi as well, Liu noted.

Catching the cab

A turning point came in 2014. Liu recounted how hard it was to find taxis in Beijing, particularly with her three children in tow. She then came across Didi as an investment target and saw potential for strong growth.

"I was impressed with the founder's convictions, wisdom and perceptiveness. Leaving Goldman was the hardest decision in my life, but I did not want to miss the opportunity of joining Didi," she said.

Didi lost no time in putting Liu's talents to work, winning investments from Alibaba and SoftBank Group in 2016. Liu also negotiated directly with Apple CEO Tim Cook, securing $1 billion in funding in less than a month.

She played a key role in facilitating the February 2015 merger agreement with Kuaidi Dache. Didi, employing Tencent's WeChat Pay mobile payments service, and Kuaidi, using Alibaba's Alipay, were locked in a war of attrition by constantly cutting prices and offering drivers incentives.

Liu tapped her Goldman Sachs connections to bring that fierce battle to a close.

Liu went on to prepare for a new matchup with Uber, which was expanding aggressively in China. And in December 2015, Didi formed strategic partnerships with Lyft, also of the U.S., as well as Singapore's Grab and India's Ola.

Liu has a unique take on acquisitions. "Companies can put all their energy into competing against each other, or they can join forces to cultivate new fields and push the industry to greater heights," she said.

When Uber appeared to be cornered and retreating from China, the two teamed up instead, with Didi gaining funds from the U.S. ride-hailing company and acquiring Uber's Chinese operations.

Liu says that Didi will raise the efficiency of car hailing and transportation by tapping big-data analysis and artificial intelligence.

Half of Didi's 6,000 or so employees are engineers and data scientists, and the company set up a research institute in 2015, collaborating with hundreds of top scientists inside and outside China.

Liu juggles an exhausting schedule. She has worked relentlessly for years, often attending business meetings after her children have gone to bed. "Quality time is my trick. Every day I go home and spend a happy hour with my kids after dinner before they go to sleep and it is really rewarding," she said at the Vanity Fair event.

Liu disclosed in an internal email to staff in 2015 that she was being treated for breast cancer but then made a full return to work in January 2016. Whether she is talking about health or business, Liu's determination to create a better future for her children make it clear that she will keep up the fight.

Nikkei deputy editor Ken Moriyasu in Tokyo contributed to this article.

 

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