Newsmaker: Bill Plummer, Huawei

As he ushers in a new era of transparency to help dispel legacy allegations, Huawei's VP, external affairs, aims to be proactive on all communications fronts.

As he ushers in a new era of transparency to help dispel legacy allegations, Huawei's VP, external affairs, aims to be proactive on all communications fronts. Sarah Shearman reports.

Communications is still a relatively new phenomenon for Huawei. When Bill Plummer, VP, external affairs, joined three years ago as part of a companywide push to improve its communications activities, it was a “somewhat alien concept.”

But it was Huawei's rapid global expansion and mounting allegations of security threats that forced the quiet giant to break its silence. The 25-year-old Chinese multinational is the world's number two telecoms technology manufacturer behind Ericsson, with annual revenue of $35 billion in 2012. With a heritage in networking infrastructure, Huawei has moved into cloud computing and devices in recent years, taking the number three spot behind Samsung and Apple.

As an organization made up of predominantly engineers – almost half its 150,000 employees work in R&D – innovation has always been the priority over communications. “It wasn't as if the organization was wary of it [communications], it was just not focused on it,” explains Plummer.

But Huawei was forced to overcome this cultural disinclination when concerns over security were raised by governments of the US, Canada, and Australia, marring its reputation, as well as raising suspicions about ties to the Chinese government, spurred by founder Ren Zhengfei's past career as a civil engineer in the People's Liberation Army. The situation reached its zenith in October last year, when a US congressional committee warned US companies and the government not to use Huawei's equipment, as well as fellow Chinese manufacturer ZTE's, because it could be used for spying.

Huawei, VP, external affairs

Nokia, various posts. Began as VP, government and industry affairs (1997-2002), before being named VP, corporate strategy, North America (2002-2004). Later became VP, external affairs, North America (2004-2007), and VP, Nokia North American multimedia business group sales and channel management (2007-2008). Was named VP, sales and go-to-market, Americas (2008-2009)

US State Department, foreign service officer. Held positions in the Office of the Under Secretary for Business Affairs, the Office of Multilateral Trade, and the US diplomatic mission to the Republic of Ecuador

Communications challenges
As Huawei's US spokesperson, Plummer has resolutely denied these claims in the media, but says they came as no surprise.

Owing to the company's initial silence on the subject, the allegations, which first emerged in an article in the Far East Review over a decade ago, were able to “percolate and fester into fact,” Plummer explains. 

“Our challenge has been to unravel, undo, and dispel the myth and innuendo, misinformation, and disinformation.” 

Overseeing all US communications and government affairs, Washington, DC-based Plummer has been countering the allegations with a fact-based strategy. As well as engaging media, he has been meeting politicians and key stakeholders to reassure them that the company is not a security threat.

“It is not easily done in context of the geopolitical issue, simply by virtue of Huawei's geography and headquarters,” he says. 

He explains Huawei is proven and trusted by customers of 500 telecom operators across almost 150 markets, including 45 of the world's top 50 operators, such as BT, France Telecom, and Telecom Italia.

Despite this, however, Huawei executive Eric Xu announced in April that the company was “not interested in the US” anymore, in regard to its carrier network business.

Plummer explains that because of the current situation with the US, the market cannot become a key growth area. Instead the company is focusing on other markets, particularly emerging ones.

“Pretty much the entire developed world, except the US, is deploying and eager for our gear. Naturally, that is where we will devote our focus,” Plummer adds. “But we remain committed to US customers and bringing competition and innovation to the region when it is prepared to accept it.” 

Plummer draws comparisons with his past experience of the “3G standard wars” when he was working in a similar role at Finnish-handset manufacturer Nokia, during which the US and Europe clashed over 3G standards.

“There is always going to be competition and political overtones to that – it's just the flavor that changes,” he says.

Plummer wants the company to be thought of as a global organization facing the same opportunities and challenges as any multinational business. “Huawei is Huawei,” he says. “It is not a particular country. Our challenge is to divorce that perception, which on a global basis we've been successful doing.” 

Having broken its silence, Huawei is now taking steps to become more proactive in its communications.

Work hard, play hard

Huawei's headquarters in Shenzhen is set in a sprawling mile-and-a-half campus and the base for approximately 40,000 employees.

The high-tech, multi-story buildings and lush green gardens mean comparisons have been drawn between the campus and those belonging to desirable Silicon Valley companies.

The campus also has sports facilities, a restaurant, and village where about 3,500 workers live. Plummer stayed in the company's onsite hotel during a recent visit.

“The campus is amazing,” he says. On site, there are basketball courts, an indoor facility with a swimming pool, ping-pong tables, and billiards. With the average age of Huawei employees at 28, Plummer says fostering an environment where employees are able to work and play “is important for the company.”

Building for transparency
The company's campus headquarters is in Shenzhen, where Plummer has spent two and a half months working with different departments in the organization to improve communications and enhance the company's global function. He declines to detail the size of the communications team, which he says is still evolving, but he does disclose that Huawei has grown communications in every market it operates in, with China, the US, and Europe the most well resourced, while some emerging markets have leaner operations.

“What at the time was a small team largely based at and directed by headquarters has evolved into a globally distributed, well-coordinated first-class team,” says Plummer.

In its drive to be more proactive in communications, Huawei announced it will be more open about its structure, ushering in a new era of transparency at the company.

Current CEO Guo Ping has recently granted a number of press interviews, giving insight into the company's rotating CEO structure and private employee ownership. Cathy Meng, CFO, and daughter of Huawei founder Ren, has also become more media friendly as part of this commitment. “Our situation three years ago was rather dramatic. We've come a long way since then,” says Plummer.

“Because we have grown so much faster than we've been able to keep up with, this really is our coming of age. More transparency comes with that.”

Charles Ding, corporate SVP, Huawei, says Plummer's skills, experience, and leadership have been invaluable in Huawei's initiative to enhance its communications, noting his ability to motivate the team to rally around related strategies and messaging.

“Bill takes on challenges with passion and knowledge. He is a team player – never asking anyone to do anything he would not do. He leads by example,” explains Ding. “Huawei has been in a constant state of innovation and renewal. Bill has been essential to our coming of age in terms of effective public affairs and communications.”
Now that Huawei has “come of age,” the focus is on communicating the economic benefit the company delivers in the markets in which it operates, says Plummer.

About 40,000 employees work at Huawei's campus in Shenzhen, which has basketball courts and other amenities to promote team bonding.

For example, Huawei invested $300 million in US-based R&D last year and employs more than 770 personnel at seven centers in the US, as well as additional R&D staff working on devices in Texas and San Diego. The company collaborates with industry partners to drive innovation, supports tens of thousands of jobs indirectly, and benefits consumers through competitive pricing. “Huawei is a tide that lifts many boats,” Plummer adds.

Strategic communications are essential to the consumer smartphone market, another key battleground for the company.

Huawei founded its devices business in 2003, and launched its first Android device four years ago. At this year's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Huawei outlined ambitious plans to become the leading smartphone manufacturer in the coming years. The company has differentiated offering from rivals Apple and Samsung, introducing affordable smartphones at much lower price points, starting at about $100.

As the world's largest manufacturing power, China has developed a perception for producing cheap, low-quality goods – a perception that Japanese and Taiwanese brands have fought in the past, too.

Plummer dismisses the suggestion, saying he hates the word cheap.

What's more, he says, while Huawei entered the market with more affordable devices, it now offers a wider range with higher-end models, such as the Ascend P1, the world's thinnest smartphone, and its Ascend D Quad, the first quad core-based product. The company is using PR to deliver this message to consumers.

Getting the message out
Last summer, at food festival Taste of Chicago, Huawei showcased its products to visitors. More recently, it announced sponsorship of the Jonas Brothers' new tour, kicking off this month. As part of the deal, Huawei launched the W1, the company's first Windows Phone 8 smartphone, which will be available at Walmart.

“Consumers look for the experience you are going to bring to them, defined by ease of use, at a range of price points,” he says.

Huawei's CSR work, which involves digital inclusion and education efforts, has become an important tool for communication, while also being closely aligned with its business strategy. For example, its Bridging the Digital Divide program is about helping underdeveloped regions have access to communications and information systems.

A grassroots initiative Plummer highlights is the company's K to college program, where it provided ICT-based equipment for schools in California.

As a father of eight, Plummer takes education seriously. “The more people are able to communicate and share information, the better off we are in society,” he adds.

Org Chart: Comms team developed from small beginnings to a global department

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