Virginia Kamsky, founder of the advisory firm KAI, says it is important for Western companies to have a long-term perspective in China.

Lifelong Commitment: A love of the Chinese language at an early age translated into a rewarding career

By Ariel Tung, China Daily

Virginia Kamsky has accomplished some amazing things in China, from drafting Chase Bank’s first foreign commercial bank loan to China to establishing one of the first Western advisory firms there.

These days, her advisory firm, Kamsky Associates Inc, has been advising on deals in excess of $10 billion for its clients on the mainland. Her hard work has been recognized by various organizations, including US magazine Newsweek nominating her as one of “America’s 25 Top Asia Hands”.

Her journey with China began at the age of 10 when she started learning Mandarin. Kamsky believes her success in China stems from understanding its culture, and that comes from studying the language.

In 1963, Kamsky’s mother, Sonya, thought it was important for her to learn Chinese and enrolled her at China Institute, which was a stone’s throw away from their home in uptown Manhattan.

But the young Kamsky was looked upon as being “strange” at that time for learning Chinese, especially since most of her classmates studied French. At China Institute, she was the youngest student in her class, most of them in their 50s.

In hindsight, she says her mother did the right thing by insisting she learn Chinese.

“She felt that if you have one-quarter of the world’s population who speak Chinese, you need to have Americans who speak Chinese and who understand the culture.”

Kamsky, who was awarded a National Defense Foundation Fellowship to study Chinese at Columbia University and Yale University, never looked back. She spent her senior year of high school at Fujen Catholic University in Taiwan, and was awarded Princeton summer fellowships for intensive language study at Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1971. She graduated cum laude from Princeton University in 1974 in East Asian Studies.

These days, she devotes her free time to the China Institute. She serves as chairwoman on the Board of Trustees and chief executive officer at China Institute. It touts itself as the oldest nonprofit US organization focused on the China-US relationship.

Kamsky believes in giving back, and that includes being a good example to her 13-year-old son, Michael, whom she raised speaking in Chinese and eating with chopsticks instead of a fork.

“I think the relationship between the US and China is the single most important relationship in the world,” Kamsky says. “The greatest contribution we can make is to make sure the next generation is equipped to communicate with each other.”

Her first trip to China was in December 1978, soon after the normalization of relations between China and the US was announced. She was there as a member of the first Chase Bank delegation to China where she met President Li Xiannian at the Great Hall of the People.

Kamsky, given her talents, rose within the ranks very quickly at the then Chase Manhattan Bank. A year after joining the bank, she was the manager of Chase’s credit training program in Tokyo from 1976 to 1977. She was promoted to second vice-president of Chase in 1978 and headed Chase’s corporate China division until 1980.

Because of Kamsky’s success at Chase, the bank wanted to send her to Belgium. She didn’t want to go to Belgium; she wanted to be in China. She decided to quit her first and only job to set up an advisory firm in China to help Western businesses there. Chase was one of her first clients.

“I knew it was the right thing to do. There was a lack of understanding of China. And there was a niche for firms to bridge that lack of understanding. There was no question in my mind that I wanted to devote my life to this,” Kamsky says.

Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping instituted a series of policies in 1978 for China’s reform and “opening up” to foreign investments. That action allowed the creation of Kamsky’s firm, KAI, which means opening up in Chinese.

Established in 1980, KAI was one of the first 20 American corporations authorized to establish an office in Beijing. KAI was also the first approved foreign advisory firm in China.

All of its employees, in Beijing and New York, are proficient in Chinese.

“We have to practice what we believe in. We can’t have a laowai (foreigners in Chinese) who doesn’t speak Chinese. It shouldn’t be unusual to speak Chinese. It should be normal,” Kamsky says.

She helps Western companies understand how to operate and be successful in China. A lot of times, Western companies think doing business in China is more complex than it is, and get discouraged by it.

One of the most common mistakes Western companies make, she says, is to use a Western approach in China – in a country where relationship building, or guanxi, matters.

“I see a correlation between the number of times a CEO goes to China and the success they had in China. There are a number of CEOs who think they can do it by remote control – and that’s a mistake. You need to look at someone in the eye and feel a sense of conviction that this is someone you want to partner with. If a CEO develops a good feel for a partner, the business is more likely to be successful,” Kamsky says.

A lot of Western companies don’t realize that it takes time to build a successful business in China. Kamsky says it’s important to have a long-term perspective, which is why she doesn’t take on clients who want to take shortcuts.

One of the projects she worked on, the Shanghai Portman Ritz-Carlton, started in 1980. The doors to the hotel finally opened in 1990. The process was particularly long because it was the first 100 percent foreign-owned business in China.

Kamsky, who was recently in Guangzhou to receive an award for an appointment to serve as an international investment adviser to Guangzhou city government, encourages her Western clients to study China.

“If China is important to you, you want to learn as much as possible, by reading the current books about China. There are always lots to learn. A company that is serious about China must continue learning. It’s not possible to do business in China without knowing its culture.”