Interview: Cameron Johnson on being Washingtonian-Shanghainese, and managing British Sigmatex in China
By Wen Liu Oct. 27, 2017
Cameron Johnson was at the Seattle Biz-Tech Summit in Bellevue last month when we met. I was intrigued when he told me that he had grown up in Bremerton, WA, but had called Shanghai home for many years. So he, like perhaps half of the 1,500 plus attendees at the event, had traveled from China, his current home, to Washington, his old. What makes his story more interesting is the fact that Cameron is the general manager of Sigmatex (Shanghai) Composite Materials Company Ltd., a British company. So how did our Bremerton native end up a long-time resident of Shanghai? What does Sigmatex do, and where are its products in U.S.-China trade? How does Cameron feel about working and living in Shanghai? And did he follow the 19th Communist Party Congress last week, China's biggest event in five years? For these and more, here is Cameron Johnson.
WCWD: So you grew up in Bremerton, went to UW, and then University of Wales. What made you go to China, and when, and did you go straight to Shanghai?
Cameron Johnson: I went to Changchun, China in 1999 as an English and History professor at a local college.
In middle school I applied for a study abroad program in China, but was rejected. But that planted a China seed, and year later, an old family friend was hiring teachers to go to China. When I interviewed they asked how quickly I could go, I said as soon as I was hired. They hired me a week later, and two weeks after that I was on a plane to China, having sold everything I owned including my car.
I came to Shanghai in 2002, and initially taught at an English language program, but soon realized that wasn’t a long term option. I applied for a new role within a Microsoft Joint Venture company and in early 2003 was hired there.
Cameron Johnson: Our company produces carbon composite materials that are used in the automotive, aerospace, sporting goods, marine, and construction industries. Ferrari, Boeing, CCM Reebok are just a few companies that use our products.
In the US we have facilities in California and South Carolina that provide material to several companies in Washington state in aerospace and tooling companies, as well as to Asia.
WCWD: Over the years, what do you find easy and difficult, or maybe what you enjoy most and what frustrates you most, about doing business or managing a company in China?
Cameron Johnson: I enjoy working with people from various backgrounds, dealing with customers, and solving what can appear to be insurmountable issues within a business.
The biggest challenges often come from those outside of China, who think they understand business in China/Asia, or try to limit or control business within China.
WCWD: USTR is investigating Chinese laws and practices harming American intellectual property rights, innovation, or technology development. Could you share your understanding on this, or your experience in this area?
Cameron Johnson: IP, corporate espionage, hacking, etc. are very real threats to US business. They are also a serious threat to domestically with Chinese companies. When working at Microsoft, we understood that 85%+ of the Windows software used in China was not legitimate. If you add this up it is Billions of dollars of lost revenue for Microsoft. This is still a challenge, but as Chinese companies now are also facing similar challenges, the government is working to better enforce the law.
WCWD: The whole of China seemed to be watching the 19th Communist Party Congress last week, which will impact China in many ways. As a foreign business executive, did you watch or follow the event, and why?
Cameron Johnson: We watched it to see if there would be enforcement of law, or creation of new laws that affect business, any reforms that would be unfolded specifically in banking, labor law, and environmental law. Also new officials in Shanghai, and local officials in customs, labor bureau, etc. as we would have relationships with them.
WCWD: After almost twenty years, you must feel more Shanghainese than Washingtonian now. Could you tell us what you like about living in Shanghai, and would you encourage fellow Washingtonians to go and work there?
Cameron Johnson: I feel a bit of both. Still have those Seattle roots (love of rain and Seahawks), but am very globally/Asian focused in my thoughts and world view as this is where I have been for so long, and I came to Asia at 19 years old.
I would encourage anyone who desires to go abroad to try it. A different perspective of view can always be better than not having one. If the desire is to live and work in China/Asia, I would encourage first understanding the markets, possible jobs, etc., before moving. This will help understand where a good fit might be, and if you don’t like it you can always try something, or someplace, else.
(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)