Huawei founder reflects on career, philosophizes about pig farming

Founding CEO Ren Zhengfei shares stories behind Huawei's start, his mission to stop foreigners mangling his company's name, admits Cisco is more advanced, and hates the low-key image being portrayed by the media.
Written by Ryan Huang, Contributor

Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei held a rare interview session with local media in France last week, where he opened an R&D center in Paris and met two French ministers, according to Les Echos.

In the charm offensive, Ren discussed why he started the company and reiterated the company's stand to exit the U.S. networking market.

ren zhengfei
Huawei's founder and CEO, Ren Zhengfei. (credit: Huawei)

The CEO admited he was pretty naive when entering the telecoms industry without realizing how tough and fast paced it was, and ponders about a slower and perhaps more meaningful alternative career as a pig farmer, according to the interview transcript by NetEase.

Ren also downplayed security concerns involving Huawei, and also acknowledged the company was not yet in a position to match global leader Cisco Systems in the networking space. Incidentally, Huawei was subject to a legal challenge from Cisco in 2003 over stolen source code.

Here is the translated excerpt from the interview:

Q: When you retired from the army, did you get government support to start a business?

Ren: "When I left the army after the massive cut in active personnel numbers, it was a matter of making ends meet. But during that time we were lacking the business skills for the current market. China was in a time of transition, but not only did we not know any technology skills, we also did not understand business.

I eventually found a job in Shenzhen involved in building houses. But I was not suited to the company's management methods and did not do a good job. They also did not want me, so I left to find another job."

Why did you embark into the telecommunications industry?

"If I were a fruit seller, you'd probably also ask why I was selling fruit. Perhaps if I were smarter and had not entered the telecoms industry, I might have had a more meaningful life. For example, if I had gone instead to rear pigs, I might by now already be China's most successful pig farmer. Not only are pigs very obedient, the industry also progresses at a slow pace. That's compared with the telecoms industry which moves so fast that I'm too tired to keep pace with developments now.

"Perhaps if I were smarter and had not entered the telecoms industry, I might have had a more meaningful life. For example, if I had gone instead to rear pigs, I might by now already be China's most successful pig farmer."

Another mistake when I first started was naively assuming it was huge and full of business opportunities. It was only after entering that I found out exactly how tough it was, and how demanding product standards were, harsh conditions for a small company. But by then it was too late to back out, because all my startup capital was gone. Withdrawing would have made us penniless, how would we move on? Even if I had decided to go back to rearing pigs, I wouldn't have had any money to buy a small pig, let alone start a farm. That's why I decided to soldier on since there was no way I could start another business."

How did you come up with Huawei's name?

"When we first wanted to register the company, we had no name. Then we looked up and saw a slogan on the wall that said '中华有为' or Zhong Hua You Wei [China has potential], which seemed to be pretty relevant.

I guess the name, Huawei, was not thought out very well because its pronounciation is a closed tone and not a loud sound. That's why for the past decade, we have been debating internally whether to ditch the name for something else that had a better ring to it. But recently we decided to keep it and we want to teach foreigners how to pronounce the name instead of often mixing it up with 'Hawaii'."

Have concerns over Huawei subsided after the NSA leaks over PRISM?

"We are not concerned about the PRISM incident. This is a problem of information security, which is an Internet company's problem. Our business is in the 'pipes', which transfer the information, and even then we only make the metal casing of the 'pipe'. So drawing an analogy, when your water supply gets contaminated, you should look for the utilities company and not the pipe maker."

Is Huawei a bit like Cisco?

"We are not on the same level as Cisco, they are more advanced than us. When the whole world was embarking on the ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) model, Cisco were the only ones looking at IP (Internet Protocol). All of us betted on the wrong horse, except Cisco. Now it's the global leader. We still can't reach that level yet."

With Huawei facing government hurdles in some countries, do the Chinese and U.S. bring up the company during bilateral discussions?

"Our company is an insignificant company. Our sales in the United States is about US$10 billion, compared with China's exports which is worth a few trillion dollars. The Chinese government is more concerned about what affects that bigger number, and employment issues at home. We are a private enterprise without any high-level political position.

If Huawei is an obstacle to bilateral trade, then it's really not worth it. That's why we had decided to exit the U.S. market, so as not to be caught in the middle. Since then we've still been doing very well. Anyway, our phones are selling very well in the U.S., they can't say our phones also have security problems right? That's because the software is American, and not ours. We do not have an operating system. We do things reasonably."

You are usually very low-key, why are you fronting this interview session today?

"I'm typically not a low-key person, otherwise it would be impossible to manage a company with hundreds of thousands of employees. At home, I'm usually pretty wild together with my children. Kids at home often chat with me and I'm happy to talk with them. I do not like the low-key image that the media has portrayed."

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