Li Dongsheng, CKGSB alumni and CEO of TCL, is one of the most important entrepreneurs in China’s manufacturing history. He has been important in the development of China’s economy and its reform from the 1980s to the present day. He graduated from the CKGSB CEO Program in 2006.
In this new alumni series, we track down CKGSB’s most influential graduates, many of whom have gone on to lead unicorn companies – privately held companies valued at $1 billion USD or more. According to CB Insights – a global platform which provides authoritative and up-to-date information on the world’s billion-dollar private companies – China has created a total of 217 unicorn companies between 2017 to 2021. Thirty-nine (or 18%) of these companies are run by CKGSB alumni, including 35 companies where CKGSB alumni are founders or co-founders, and 4 companies where they serve as the chairman, CEO or president.
As China’s leading business school, it’s not surprising that CKGSB has been able to produce so many business leaders playing a pivotal role in China’s economic development. More than 18,000 successful entrepreneurs, industry leaders and executives of multinational corporations have chosen to study at CKGSB for the original China insights, world-class faculty and peer-to-peer learning with China’s movers-and-shakers. More than half of CKGSB’s alumni are at the CEO or Chairman level and, collectively, lead one-fourth of China’s most valuable brands.
Li Dongsheng was one of the 5% of students who were admitted to university after the college entrance exam was introduced in 1978. In 1982, he joined the small cassette producing company TTK Home Appliances as a technician.
By 1985, the company changed its name to TCL, and production from cassette tapes to telephones. It was in 1990, when he attended the Las Vegas Electronics Show, that Li realized the technology gap between Chinese and American enterprises. He subsequently led the joint venture with Huizhou King Audio Visual Electronics which launched TCL into the color television market. In 1996, Li was promoted to President and Chairman of the company.
Throughout the 1990s, the color television market was expanding exponentially in China. TCL was part of a group of majority state-owned companies, such as Panda and Changhong, which were heavily engaged in a price war. Li knew that for TCL to be successful and compete with Japanese and South Korean television manufacturers the company had to expand out of China.
This is exactly the path which Li Dongsheng led TCL on. In 1999, it was listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, raising USD $128 million. That same year the company also expanded into Vietnam and, in 2000, into Russia. Under Li’s leadership, TCL was also branching into further industries such as mobile phones, telecommunications, electronics, and PCs.
Resolving Challenges in Europe
In 2003, Li led TCL to acquire a 65% stake in the French television producer Thomson SA to form TCL-Thomson Electronics (TTE), and a 55% stake in the mobile phone business Alcatel the following year – becoming the first Chinese company to gain a majority stake in an international business.
However, the acquisition caused problems for TCL with its European business, experiencing big losses in 2004. Li said, “Twenty years of savings were almost gone in a single business move.” An important reason for losses was that, by 2005, European consumers had switched to flat-screen LCD TVs, however, TTE were predominately producing CRT screens. Despite this crisis, Li Dongsheng re-organized TTE, selling many of its assets, and by 2007, TCL was making a profit again.
In recent years, Li Dongsheng has brought TCL to the forefront of the global consumer electronics industry, particularly in the semi-conductor market. TCL is now a market leader in the production of monocrystalline silicone and silicon wafers used to manufacture solar cells and electronic appliances. It is also a leading manufacturer of LCD TVs, and competes with companies such as IBM, LG, Samsung and Philips.
The company is still financially strong – revenue in 2021 was RMB 250 billion (USD $39 billion), an increase on RMB 100 billion (USD $16 billion) in 2020. In 2022, Li Dongsheng was listed by Fortune China as the 26th most influential businessman in China.