Interview with Thomas Stanley

Thomas Stanley UM Alum (‘93)

Thomas Stanley
UM Alum (‘93)

In this interview, we talked with UM alum Thomas Stanley who tells us about his career trajectory in Greater China, from teaching English in Taiwan to being a Partner and National Markets COO with KPMG in Shanghai.

LRCCS: Where did you grow up?

Stanley: In a number of different places, mostly in Michigan. I also spent 5 years in the UK; my family’s always been spread out. Then I came to Ann Arbor and UM not as a Chinese major, but took Chinese 101 with Professor Hilda Tao and was fascinated by it. She was a great teacher but I wanted to take my language to the next level by traveling to China.

LRCCS: So you did a study abroad?

Stanley: Right, that was my junior year, and there weren’t really any UM programs in Mainland China at that time. So I transferred to the University of Massachusetts for a year to do a study abroad program, and did an intensive summer in Taiwan then a full academic year in Beijing.

LRCCS: Woah, that’s a deep dive

Stanley: It was. The funny thing was, after Taiwan I thought, I’m getting the hang of this, Mainland China will be no problem. But it was much more challenging than I’d anticipated. We were traveling to Beijing from Guangzhou by train and I remember at the train station our team lead said to us, “The good news is everyone’s got a ticket. The bad news is they were out of sleeper berths.” So we had hard seats, and some of us didn’t even have seats. That was our introduction to China.

LRCCS: Quite a warm welcome. What year was this?

Stanley: ’86 – ’87. The ball of Reform and Opening was just getting rolling in Beijing at that time – it was all brand new. They had just gotten rid of the rationing coupons. And when I go back to Beijing, there’s almost nothing now that’s the same.

When we got to Beijing, the first thing we did was organize bicycles. There were almost no cars – some public buses, cabs, etc. It was very quiet – you’d roam around the streets and just hear the tinkling of bicycle bells.

LRCCS: So what happened after undergrad?

Stanley: This wasn’t a great time to be looking for jobs, so I bought a ticket to Taiwan and got a job teaching English. After about a year there I got a full-time job with KPMG.

LRCCS: Had you studied consulting or anything like that?

Stanley: No. It was a fascinating experience; I was hired as their English editor and reviewed every client-facing document that they produced in English.

LRCCS: This was the late 80s? What did KPMG look like in Taiwan back then?

Stanley: The Taiwanese economy was really going gangbusters, one of the emerging Asian tigers. The company had about 300 employees in Taiwan at the time. And after a while I realized I needed to supplement what I’d studied at UM, so I decided to go back to UM to get an MBA. During my time in Ann Arbor I took a lot of classes with LRCCS faculty like Linda Lim, Yi-tsi Feuerwerker and Shen-fu Lin; the center was an excellent resource for research on China.

LRCCS: What did you do after you graduated?

Stanley: At that point I got a job in Changzhou with a US-China manufacturing company. I joined shortly after the joint-venture agreement had been inked, and I became their finance director and one of the on-the-ground guys in the company. I was one of only three foreigners in the city.

LRCCS: What was Changzhou like in the early 90s?

Stanley: I described it to some people as being like camping for two years. Things that I took for granted were very difficult to find, such as news about the rest of the world. It was a great learning experience though – life over there was very different, and this was still in the time when State Owned Enterprises had a separate ecosystem for their organization. I got to see some fascinating things in that microcosm, like when the union in our manufacturing plant had a joint wedding for 7 couples.

LRCCS: Were you invited?

Stanley: Oh yes, I was one of the “distinguished guests.” I believe they had me present some kind of gift to the couples, but I don’t really remember.

LRCCS: What are you up to now at KPMG?

Stanley: Now I’m the COO of our national markets group, which encompasses all our account and sector programs; looking after our major clients, our business development team, and all of our ‘go-to-market activities.’ So we help our core service providers position themselves in the market effectively.

LRCCS: Do you have any advice for current students who are considering going into business in China?

Stanley: The language is hugely important. It always was, but now it’s even more of a hard requirement. And I think the best way to get started in China is just to find something here to get your foot in the door; even if it’s not exactly the right thing, it’ll be much easier to find that thing while you’re in China.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard