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October 25, 2017

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Still in love with adopted city after 3 decades

AFTER first setting foot in China nearly three decades ago, South African David Preston now lives like any other local and was made an Honorary Citizen of Shanghai last month by Mayor Ying Yong.

Preston, the son of English parents, was born in South Africa in 1957 and began a career in the pharmaceutical industry after graduating with a commerce degree.

Sitting in his office overlooking the Hotel Equatorial Shanghai, where he set up in about 1991 as an early leader of pharmaceutical firm Xi’an-Janssen, Preston told Shanghai Daily how he landed in the city, built a business and made a home and family here.

“For me, the greatest changes in the city are certainly the rules relating to foreigners’ staying in Shanghai and the permanent residency for expatriates working here. They have made living in Shanghai easy for me and my family,” he said.

He shows off a photo he took in 1993 when the Oriental Pearl TV Tower was barely half completed and surrounded by only low-rise buildings.

The city has also successfully managed the transportation system so that everybody has cheap and convenient options to get around, as well as encouraging private schools and private healthcare services, he said.

“We choose to let my daughters have Chinese passports because for them, Chinese nationality is very important since I live most of the time in China and I have no doubt that having Chinese passports is important as China becomes one of the world leaders,” he said.

Preston started his career in China in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, at the end of 1990 when he was working for the Belgian Janssen Group, and about one year later the headquarters was moved to Shanghai where the expats could also enjoy a good lifestyle and where their children could get a good education.

Later, he also set up the headquarters for Sanofi Aventis in Shanghai.

“I already saw that Chinese talent who had studied abroad under government sponsorship were coming back in the early- and mid-1990s and they were choosing Shanghai to build a new career and new life,” he said.

He then worked for Sanofi Aventis when the French company first set up its Chinese operations and then as the chief executive of Boehringer Ingelheim in China since 2009.

He has developed a deep connection with local people — many of his business partners have become life-long friends and his first Chinese business partner became the godfather of his two daughters.

Preston’s family lives in downtown Shanghai.

“My parents-in-law are Shanghainese and all of our neighbors are mostly Shanghainese, especially the older ones,” he said.

Preston takes pride in building up strong leadership and a good working environment within the company as well as building relationships with people.

“This is also very motivating for me personally,” he said. “When I occasionally catch up with young professionals that I got to know 20 to 25 years ago, it’s very rewarding to know I had a lot to do with their success and making them understand their potential.

“The business successes and achievements are all a bonus. Over my last 28 years in China, it has been the interaction with people, with smart and young people who are constantly learning new things, that have been the most rewarding for me.”

What’s most important is not that these multinational drug companies successfully establish their operations in China, it’s that the core is always about building up people, he said.

Nowadays, young Chinese have so many choices when they decide where to work and Preston has always prioritized building a good working environment, which he sees as crucial for the company to succeed.

While financial results are obviously important for shareholders, what he values most is still leading and managing people and creating an environment where people are happy to work.

“If you are constantly trying to build a better environment and believe in that people are the core of success then you’re on the right track,” Preston said.

“This proves to be my success and from what I’ve learned here, the reality is more important than customer-focus, so I hope there will be more consensus that internal people-focus ensures that good leaders will focus on customers.”

Preston is pretty sure he’s going to live in China for the rest of his life. But he hasn’t decided what will keep him busy after he retires in a few years. He definitely plans to stay active, either in business or involved in public causes.

“My family will be staying in Shanghai, for my children to get the best education here in this safe and robust city bustling with all kinds of activities,” he said.

Preston has little time for his own leisure life, instead dedicating most of his spare time to his girls:

“Every Saturday, I sit with all the local parents at the extra English and math lessons for my six-year-old daughter, doing what most Shanghai parents do on weekends — which is perfectly normal for me.”


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