Manage Multi Location Company(s) Through Culture

Charlie CampbellManagementLeave a Comment

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If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want ten years of prosperity, grow trees. If you want one hundred years of prosperity, grow people.”


If you manage or have managed a foreign-invested company in China like I do, you know how challenging it is to maintain the quality and integrity of the organization across multiple locations, from management to the people actually doing the work.

This is not uniquely a Chinese problem, it exists everywhere including the United States. It is however, exaggerated by trying to impose your business culture on another.

Living and breathing this reality over the past two years has lead me to the conclusion that culture is the key to maintain quality and integrity of your organization across multiple locations. 

Managing multiple locations in any organization is difficult. Spread out operations can bring geographic advantages, while at the same time sacrifice the quality of the organization, particularly in China, which hurts your brand. I have learned this the hard way.

HONT (“Haining Oregon Nursery Technologies”) grew fast, both in terms physical locations and people.
  • 2014
    • 50 acre nursery from scratch in Haining, China
    • ~15 admin + managers + supervisors, 40-150 workers
  • 2015
    • 50 acre nursery in Jinan, China (800 miles away)
    • A corporate headquarters in Hangzhou
    • 30 admin + managers + supervisors, 80 – 250 workers
  • 2016
    • 170 acre nursery in Shuyang, China (in process)
    • Build out of nurseries for customers (in process)
This presented a problem for a our growing company: how do we maintain quality and integrity of the original team while we spread out geographically? 

Issues growing geographically

I failed in the beginning. I expected to be able to hand a manager a piece of paper with well-written job descriptions (mission, deliverables, and key attributes), a hand book on on how to execute, well-defined budgets, and then they would flourish and I could go home! Boy was I wrong.

Issues didn’t surface right away but crept up on us over time. To name a few:
  • Kill the messenger syndrome. Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news, which makes identifying deeper problems harder.
  • Quality of the product went down.  Quality products start with quality people.
  • Employee morale & drive fell. People (especially new hires) didn’t feel the sense of working for foreign-invested company.
  • Labor efficiency tanked. Follows point above, managers didn’t drive things and waterfalled down to laborers.
  • Slow decision making. Classic ‘let the boss make the decision’ slows operations down and costs money in the long-term.

None of these jump out at you right away but showed up over time. It’s easy to think managing another location will be easy, but it’s not. And for a little while, we paid the consequences.

There are many reasons why these issues came up, but in HONT’s case, our saving grace was refocusing everybody on our culture.

Define your culture

I remember like it was yesterday: our core team sat in the HONT Museum (a showroom for trees) and white boarded out the lifeblood of who we are, why we do it, and the attitude we expect for everyone who shows up for work. Our culture was no so much born, but defined.

Immediately, all employees were presented with our culture deck and new hires to this day are indoctrinated into it and walk out a different person. The results have been nothing short of spectacular.

Fuel to the fire

We then implemented a few habits below (in no particular order) that have worked magic at turning the mentality / spirt of the organization around.
  • Weekly team meetings across departments and locations.
  • Weekly memo to entire staff identifying small wins
  • Professionalism work shops
  • Identify managers who ‘get it’, aka breathe your company culture
  • Never stop being a conduit for the culture, 24 hours a day.
Within three months, HONT was different company and we had returned to the feeling of a founding few at each location and I’m looking forward to continuing to do so into the future.

Your turn.

Building cultural discipline across multiple locations takes a lot of effort, care, and attention. It’s not easy to do and requires 100% buy-in on behalf of the people executing it.

I encourage you to try this in your own companies, in China or not, and see what happens. Your life will be a lot easier and your company will thrive.


Leave comments below about your experiences managing multiple locations and good/bad solutions you’ve tried!

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