Interview with Imre Toth
Asia Development Director @Metalis Group
Imre Toth (Arts et Métiers ParisTech Graduate School of Engineering – later referred to as Arts et Métiers, Lille 1993) is a pioneer of the Franco-Chinese partnership at Beihang University (Beijing). Ever since that first exchange he took part in, double degrees have been created between Arts et Métiers and China’s most famous universities. Thus, every year, about 20 Arts et Métiers ParisTech graduates go to China to complete their studies for a period of 18 to 24 months.
Imre, you have been working in China for more than 20 years now. It all began with an academic exchange. Could you tell us more about your decision to come to this country in the first place?
As far as I can remember I have always loved traveling and discovering new cultures. As a graduate student at Arts et Métiers ParisTech, I joined a program named BEST, which stands for Board of European Students of Technology, and still exists today. Back then, I represented our school in Europe.
When I learned about the opportunity to move to China to conclude my curriculum, I did everything I could to be part of the program. I went to Beijing the following summer to start learning Chinese. I even decided to enroll in a metallurgy curriculum to meet the Chinese professor who was the coordinator of the exchange program with Beihang. The program had started just one year earlier…
In those years, the country was not remotely as developed as it is today, it is safe to assume that few Westerners would have thought of going to China to start their career. Can you tell us what made you stay?
Through BEST I had had the chance to discover Eastern Europe. There, I had been astounded by the energy and curiosity pervading society. It seemed like every time I met someone, they wanted to know everything about our economy, our politics and how we managed a company. It was much more engaging when compared to what I perceived as a wait-and-see attitude in France and the proverbial perennial dissatisfaction French people are famous for.
In 1995, China was still seen as a cryptic universe and for most of us everything had still to be discovered. That really sparked my curiosity, and after all, what was there to lose in trying?
This experience clearly topped my expectations. At Beihang University we were merely 60 foreigners (among which 40 were Korean) with over 6,000 Chinese students! Everyone was intrigued by us and questioned us on multiple topics.
That curiosity, combined with the fact that overall they knew virtually nothing about the Western world and culture, was fascinating!
Throughout my stay, I read much and spent all weekends and vacations traveling. I often offered my Chinese friends to accompany me during my trips. Crowded trains, endless bus fares, and the exploration of stunning places like Guilin, Lijiang… Those are such good memories!
Nowadays, everything has become very touristic, with a touch of “DisneyLand” flavour. In the past, we could go hiking in the sacred mountains, sleeping in temples… Today there are systems of cableways and elevators to shuttle tourists about in the mountains, where every path is now jammed with guided groups.
This land of opportunities was the result of a nation’s resolution to develop and bridge the gap with the rest of the world: the will to rise through innovation – despite the obstacles – and build a new future. For a foreigner, it was an opportunity to be assigned more important responsibilities than one could hope for in France.
If I had to cite 2 major factors that made me stay so long, it would be the appeal of the culture combined with the prospect of countless business opportunities.
How did you find your first job in China?
As I wanted to stay in China, I started knocking on hundreds of doors. Back then, almost all foreign companies tended to be clustered on the same street, so even without an appointment, I went on by meeting as many people as I could.
I think the process today hasn’t really changed: obviously, you need a good practical know-how, to which the Arts et Métiers curriculum is very well adapted in my opinion, the rest consists of intense networking and a dose of luck!
I got my first job at Airbus China thanks to a friend I met in a Café. She was working at Airbus and told me there was a vacancy in the support division. The boss of the support division was a good friend of Lafarge’s CEO, who was also an alumnus of Arts et Métiers ParisTech, and who I met at every Arts & Métiers Alumni dinner in Beijing at that time…
By now, it is safe to assume that you have gained a fair knowledge and understanding of this country. How would you define the new China? What do you reckon were the major changes in the last 20 years?
That’s such a broad subject, I might end up saying trivialities.
It is a country of the size of a continent, so it’s no easy task to define China as a uniform entity.
From a macroscopic point of view, the development of the country was spectacular, and remarkably well managed. Of course, everything is not perfect, there are some abuses, and corruption is still present, but the way the government has raised hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in 30 years is truly remarkable.
The current transition it is operating, from the world’s low-cost factory to a high value-added R&D center, is also impressive. China is at the forefront of research for electric vehicles, economy, the internet, and many other domains.
Some challenges still need to be addressed though, such as access to water and health coverage, the overcrowdedness of services and places such as hospitals, as well as the aging population. Moreover, the access to high-level superior education is reduced, which renders it extremely competitive, and is based on the ability to reproduce rather than to understand and interpret…
Would you care to share any personal anecdote?
– Air pollution has improved in 20 years. In 1995 in Beijing, everyone was warming up with coal stoves, burning lignite bricks in the Hutong. Beijing was covered with a cloud of grey dust and an unpleasant smell pervaded the streets. You have no way of contradicting as pollution measures have only been allowed since 2013. However, it was generally bearable, as there was often wind, around 200 days a year, which swept all this pollution away to Japan. You shouldn’t take the newspapers to the letter for this matter, as they would only display the peak days of pollution, which alas still exist, but are not representative.
– In a few years, clothing styles have evolved from somewhat kitsch – it was apparently fashionable to leave the labels of a business suit in sight on the sleeves – to a now overall quite refined style. For the delight of the great luxury brands!
– Traffic has also evolved significantly, with drivers shifting from driving loud and dangerous [small cabs beaters buckets clunkers hoopties jalopies] with little (if any) consideration for traffic lights, to deploying orderly in a fleet of luxurious and technologically modern vehicles, mostly hybrid or electric in the major cities (order being the consequence of the government’s surveillance system).
– We switched from a having to pass phone-calls in street-based telephone booths or via the reception desk of the building (with an operator shouting your name when you were on the receiving end, in our case in Beihang in 1995…) to mobile phones.
– We also witnessed the disappearance of physical currency. I remember buying a car in cash, using the largest denomination, 100 RMB bills (each of which today corresponds to approximately $15, or 13€): we walked quietly to the dealership with a bag full of bundles, for a total of 10, 000RMB. With the advent of dematerialized payments, it’s been almost a year since I have handled a banknote.
I could also give some examples of things that have not changed:
– The cult of financial prosperity has not faded.
– The family bond, with a filial duty that seems immutable despite the evolutions of society.
I am surprised that China is not among the most popular destinations for student expatriation.
So, you arrived in Beijing at the end of the 90’s. More than 20 years later, a new class of Arts et Métiers ParisTech graduates are landing in Beijing, as well as Shanghai, Nanjing, Harbin and Chongqing, every year, while Chinese graduates come to Angers, France, to complete a series of double degree programs… What are your thoughts on this?
I think it’s great.
Yet, I am surprised that within Arts et Métiers ParisTech’s exchange programs China is not among the most popular destinations. There is still so much potential in China, and Chinese companies are present all over the world. In my opinion, the experience is worth the effort.
For several years now, in France Arts et Métiers ParisTech has been acknowledged as a major academic actor in the field of industry. Industry..4.0 is the central theme of the 2019 edition of the Arts & Métiers Congress. What does your current job consist in, and how does it relate to Industry..4.0?
I manage the Asian division of a French company producing connectors for the automotive field. Roughly speaking, we cut metal and inject plastic in it. Currently we are going through the shift to Industry..4.0 in quite a tangible way.
The first step is the automation of our production processes: we are replacing dozens of workers with robots to gain efficiency and accuracy. This allows to control the payroll in a country where wages are increasing relatively fast in concurrence with economy. Also, the country’s overall business expansion allows workers to find new jobs very rapidly, resulting in many of our employees not coming back to work after the Chinese New Year. As of now, we are struggling to find new employees.
The second stage to come is to implement all kinds of sensors in our machines (temperature, vibration, etc.) and to deploy camera systems on conveyor lines to standardize and optimize the control of the dimensions of the parts produced. Also, an AI is processing Gigabytes of data to determine correlations and establish predictive maintenance. We estimate this will yield us almost 10% in extra efficiency.