Make It China’s Miranda Birch worked at the BBC, including the national network BBC Radio 4, for 24 years. She draws on her journalistic experience to find different stories hidden within companies. Stories that draw in new customers by bringing to life the values of those companies. Stories that demonstrate the difference they make to clients, staff, and, in the case of BROAD Group, the planet.
One company's commitment to sustainability
You might not be familiar with the name BROAD Group. But you might be aware of its Chairman, Zhang Yue, who founded the company 30 years ago. He became noteworthy in the West because he was the first businessman in China to own a private jet. And you might remember a smattering of headlines in 2015, about a Chinese construction company which managed to build a 57-storey skyscraper in 19 working days. The birth of ‘Mini Sky City’ was strikingly captured in a time lapse film: ‘Building 3 storeys a day. China’s new normal’.
In 2015 people focussed on the speed at which the glass and steel structure rose into the sky. The process was impressively fast because the building is made from prefabricated steel slabs. The slabs are meticulously manufactured in BROAD’s factories, ready to be pieced together on site.
But by emphasising the speed, much of the coverage underplayed a more important point. A point that lies at the heart of BROAD Group.
Sustainability as well as speed
The modular approach which makes the process so fast also makes the building sustainable. The energy and environmental costs involved in construction are slashed. There aren’t any trucks ferrying raw materials to and from the construction site. No constant rumbling. No clouds of dust contributing to smog.
There’s more. The finished building boasts 20 cm thick insulation, fresh air heat recovery and triple-glazed windows. That means it consumes a fifth of the energy of comparable buildings.
BROAD SUSTAINABLE BUILDING (BSB), the BROAD subsidiary behind Mini Sky City, is confident that the ‘core tubular stainless steel slab’ structure it has developed, will outlive buildings made of concrete and conventional carbon steel. So when the tower block nears the end of its useful life, its steel skeleton will be able to be dismantled and reused – unlike many buildings in the past that were demolished and carted off to a landfill graveyard.
In short, speed wasn’t the point. Sustainability – from start to finish – is.
And while the 19 day skyscraper grabbed headlines in 2015, the truth is that BROAD Group has been innovating on behalf of the environment well before that. Sustainability – the desire to preserve life by turning ‘waste into treasure’ – frames everything it does.
The products that prove it
Let’s start at a relatively small scale. (We’ll move onto how BROAD has turned an entire town into a product in a moment.)
Another part of the BROAD Group family is BROAD Air Conditioning.
For more than two decades it has invested money and IP effort in developing non-electric chillers. The chillers cool and heat water for large-scale air-conditioning units. Think airports, office blocks, shopping malls, hospitals, factories. There are different versions of these huge installations…
…but the guiding principle behind all of them is the same: wherever possible use green energies as power. And the greenest of them all is waste heat.
As the General Manager of BROAD Air Conditioning International, James Wu (above), puts it, “waste heat is the future. With Waste Heat Chillers, we can achieve zero energy consumption and zero carbon emissions. This is the future. We are confident about this for our company and the planet.”
What that means is you need to capture the steam and the exhaust from other parts of your building (or neighbourhood) and convert it into useful energy. Don’t let a single vibrating joule get away. It’s the equivalent of mending every single dripping tap across a city. Each droplet (or joule) might seem inconsequential on its own, but taken en masse, it all adds up to terrible waste. And BROAD wants to turn that waste into treasure. Jason Jian (far right below) is the Sales Director of BROAD Air Conditioning International:
“In cold places with long winters, we help central heating companies to use the heat which is not used directly for heating. For example, water that’s 10°C or 20°C, which can’t be used for heating. Our technology can pick up the heat from that temperature heat source and raise it to about 65°C or 80°C. That means we can almost double the efficiency of conventional heating systems, which is why BROAD technology is being welcomed by heating companies all over the world.”
Living proof of sustainability
So that’s one example of a sustainable product. But actually BROAD strives to make everything it does sustainable. That includes everything behind the scenes, in BROAD Town. In Jason’s words, “our legacy will be to package up BROAD Town as a product”.
Broad Town is a campus, home to the company’s headquarters and ten dormitory buildings where 3000 of the staff live. As you wander around you see more evidence of BROAD treasuring its waste. The outdoor furniture is made from off-cuts of steel:
And in the offices many of the desks and cabinets are the reincarnations of product packaging.
It was in 2008 that the company started to scale up its efforts to create a truly sustainable community. So Mini Sky City, which grabbed the limelight in 2015, is actually just one of 30 buildings which can boast impressive energy efficiency and air quality.
At this point, it’s worth noting that in 2008 the world’s governments were still a year away from the ill-fated Copenhagan summit on climate change. And while the world’s leaders ummed and ahhed over their respective responsibilities, BROAD Group were quietly getting on with it. Putting the principle of ‘preserving life’ into practice, at the office and at home.
Sustainability presses the self-destruct button
This next bit is striking. It’s a measure of how committed BROAD Group is to sustainability. Because, in the longer term BSB will lead to the demise of one of its sister subsidiaries. In Jason’s words, “it will kill the air conditioning business”. As BSB creates more energy efficient buildings, keeping the air at comfortable temperatures all through the year, the need for air conditioning will eventually disappear. Jason says this with pride because it means that the company will have achieved a new level of sustainability – and the effort that BROAD currently invests in air conditioning will be invested in innovations that we haven’t conceived of as yet.
Bringing deeply-held beliefs to life
Buildings are one thing, but the long-term future of BROAD’s sustainable ethos relies on belief. When people truly believe in a vision, change their behaviour accordingly and influence their family and friends as they go – that’s when an ethos embeds itself, widely and deeply. In Jasons’ words, “we see it and we feel it”.
How does it happen? Much of it comes from the company practising what it preaches; creating the conditions which prompt people to think about how their day-to-day behaviour can help safeguard the environment long term.
That might mean carrots and, yes, the occasional stick too.
One of BROAD’s ‘carrot’ incentives comes in form of Low Carbon Subsidies, which are available to every member of staff. Jane Xiao (above) is the Administration Manager of BROAD Air Conditioning International:
“I think this policy is unique because our Chairman doesn’t have an obligation to provide this subsidy to the staff. So if you don’t have a car, you receive 1,580 RMB a year. That is enough, approximately, to cover all your local bus travel, or to buy a pretty nice bicycle. I think this is the first time ever in China that the owner of the company has offered this type of subsidy to the staff.”
As for the stick? Whether you’re part of BROAD or a guest, this is what you will see when you sit down to have lunch at the canteen:
Jane continues: “A member of staff once left some vegetables on his plate and they were forbidden to eat in the canteen for two days. In China there is a tradition that, when you have guests, you need to provide as much food as you can. Our Chairman is determined to change that, not because we cannot afford it, but because we don’t want to waste food.”
Perhaps this sounds too stern. But 80% of the meals served at the canteen are grown on organic farms owned by BROAD. If you stop to think about the effort involved in growing a side serving of vegetables – preparing the soil, sowing seeds, feeding, watering, fending off pests – only to see that food scraped off someone’s plate into the bin… two days banned from the canteen makes a valid point.
It’s not just a waste of food. It’s a waste of all the hard work that the food represents.
Spreading belief, far and wide
Hard work and commitment to sustainability is what BROAD expects of all its employees. And the company gives a lot back in return. James joined as a graduate over a decade ago:
“I love BROAD. After 13 years I’m still very enthusiastic. If we want to do something, we can do it ourselves. The relationships between people are very simple. The company encourages us to work hard and we get a return. I like that philosophy.
“Also, the health of the employees is most important to our Chairman. That is why the company invests a lot to make sure our staff can have organic food and work in a very good environment.”
Jason joined the company 11 years ago. BROAD first caught his attention when the news broke about the Chairman acquiring his first private jet: “I like jet fighters and anything that flies in the sky and I was attracted by this.” His enthusiasm remains, but for different reasons:
“Unknowingly BROAD changes your life. This is just a small example but for instance, when my family and I go to the movies, kids always like candies. So when my daughters finish a candy and I can’t find a trash box, I always put the wrapper in my pocket. Also, if it’s not necessary, I don’t go out in my car.”
And for the record, the private jets are on the way out. James:
“Yes, BROAD was famous because we were the first company to use a private business jet in China. And later, we bought five more jets. But business jets consume a lot of energy and we wanted to support environmental protection. So now, after 10 years, we are the first company in China to stop using business jets. So that is why we are famous now: we were the first to buy a business jet and now we are the first to stop using them!”
And finally to Jane, who joined the company in 2010. She was a sustainability convert already. So she was in a position to assess BROAD’s environmental credentials more rigorously:
“Being environmental for me is part of my genes. I just naturally think that saving energy and preserving the environment is a kind of obligation for every human being. As a student, I hated using plastic bags from the supermarket. So this is part of my character. And when I came to BROAD and watched our Chairman and the company do what it does, BROAD has strengthened me. I feel very proud of it.”
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Tips for Chinese table etiquette
There is an expression in the Middle Kingdom that says 'the table is China'. Food is the beating heart of Chinese culture and will be the first topic or conversation among friends old and new. So much so that a standard greeting is 'Have you eaten?'. Chinese customs and social niceties have developed and endured over thousands of years. Many aspects of table manners can be traced back to the imperial court itself.
One legend has it that chopsticks were popularized by an emperor who, under fear of an assassination attempt, decreed that no knife or sharp implement be present at the table and instead, all must eat with chopsticks.
A lesser known affectation is to tap the table with two knuckles or fingers while someone pours you a drink. To Western eyes it could be offensively read to mean 'hurry up', and feels very alien when you try it out. In fact, this practice also starts with the tale of an emperor. The story goes that a ruler was travelling in disguise with his troops and dined with them as an ordinary soldier. The emperor had to be treated the same in order not to risk exposure. Still wanting to show respect, but unable to bow, members of his entourage would pay homage by 'kneeling' with two fingers knocking upon the table.
Not to worry, there's no risk of catastrophe if you don't know protocol when it comes to table manners! The Chinese are not at all easily offended. However you will find even the smallest nod towards these customs will go a long way and will be greeted by much warmth and (usually loud) enthusiasm. So read on for more tips and pointers.
Tables are almost always round and the main host or most important guest will usually sit facing the door. Their most valued guests will sit at their right and left respectively, the second most important host will often sit opposite the main host. After that, the order becomes more fluid. It's worth noting that these rules are not always followed and are certainly not compulsory, but it's a nice gesture to wait for your host to seat you, or wait until they sit, before choosing your spot.
This aspect of table life is probably the most tricky. Meals can get pretty loud and boisterous in China! Expectations and behaviours vary from place to place and of course are changing as fast as China itself. Firstly, if you are female you can often fairly easily excuse yourself from any drinking you don't feel comfortable with. Also, if you don't drink outright, for religious or personal reasons, or you are driving, the Chinese are usually very understanding about it and won't pressure you. The difficulties can come with the middle ground.
Drinking can form the basis for excellent hospitality, camaraderie and building of business relationships in China. You will rarely see anyone at a meal sipping their drink at their own pace as Westerners tend to do. Emptying your glass too quickly or drinking alone could show either you don't want to drink with the others, or it can embarrass your host, appearing as if they have not topped up your drink quickly enough. Conversely, drinking slowly can leave you with a full glass while others have an empty one, showing perhaps you don't think the drink is good, or you don't want to socialize with them.
Where you can really win fans in China is by standing or going over to toast hosts and guests. It's a sure sign of welcome if you're on the receiving end, and a great way to show your respect if you do so. You should follow the person's lead for how much to drink: if they sip, sip, if they empty their glass they may expect you to do so as well (again, don't feel pressured to empty your glass if you don't want to). Part of the intricate social dance is to make sure no one is left out, so if you see two people toast, you may notice straight after their complimentary party members (eg. if a woman toasted you, their husband may follow by toasting your partner) will offer a toast.
If you want the Chinese to adore you, watch how the group you are with does it a couple times, then copy. Don't be at all shy about using soft drinks or water to toast with if you are not comfortable with the pace of drinking (but avoid toasting with your tiny tea cup). Where it can get rowdy is when groups get a little over enthusiastic. You may see men competing in good humour to get another more and more drunk. You might also find someone very keen to keep pouring you large drinks. There is a kind of pushiness you sometimes come across in China which seems serious to us (think of two people loudly arguing over the bill, where each is trying to pay for the whole meal, and seeming very angry at their friend trying to pay) but is really just a way of showing friendliness and good manners.
If you can use them, great! And expect everyone to compliment you on your skills. If you want to come across as particularly classy, try to hold your chopsticks as much towards the top as possible. If you can't use them, have no fear. You will often be offered cutlery, or if there is none available you can easily get along with a Chinese porcelain spoon.
More and more people and restaurants are adopting the hygienic practice of having a separate set of serving and eating chopsticks. So each central dish might have a pair to serve yourself with, then you will have your own pair for your rice bowl. Be careful not to accidentally eat with the serving chopsticks! Also, don't be afraid to start this set-up yourself at a meal if you like the idea, as there are always enough chopsticks to do so, and no one should take offence.
You have probably heard before that it's not polite to leave your chopsticks sticking into your bowl. This is fairly true. Also, avoid pointing them directly at people, resting them straight on the table (lay them across your bowl if needed) or using your chopsticks to reach across other people to get at food.
People only ever order individual dishes at noodle bars or for street food. At a meal it is common for the host to pick a variety of dishes that are set out in the middle of the table. Each person has their own rice bowl (which may come pre-filled or you might serve yourself) and you tuck in to whatever dishes take your fancy. It is usual to take little amounts rather than pile up your bowl. Try not to take the very last morsel from a dish as the host will take this as a sign that you are still hungry, and may order more food. Your hosts will often place some morsels in your bowl for you, which is considered good manners and a way to make guests welcome. Do say thank you and eat what you are given if you can.
A whole series could be written on this topic. And we may well follow up on it! But the key thing to remember is just enjoy. Chinese food is amazing, varied and exciting. Chinese people love sharing it with guests so sit back and soak up the hospitality.