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Champion of charity

Jordanian-American Majdi Abulaban has won many honors in recognition of both his contributions to commerce in running China's largest auto electrical parts manufacturer and for his support of local charity causes. Lu Feiran interviews a man for whom giving back is second nature.

Three pieces of Chinese calligraphy grace the wall at the entrance to Majdi Abulaban's office in Jiading District: "Perfect yourself, put your house in order, conquer the world," said by Confucius, "cross the river by groping for stepping stones," said by Deng Xiaoping, and "it's harder to sustain a business than to create one," says a traditional Chinese idiom.

Another sits on his desk ready to be pasted onto the wall. "I asked my colleagues if there is a Chinese equivalent to the English idiom, 'the cream rises to the top'," explained the Jordanian-born American. He hoped such an idiom could encourage his team to combat the current global economic crisis.

After brainstorming with his Chinese staff, they decided "gold will shine" matched the English saying. Abulaban and six Chinese staff members - most of them long-term employees of car parts company Delphi Corporation in Shanghai - created the sign, each writing a character. Abulaban contributed to the character "?"," - part of the word "gold."

"I practised it for a long time," he said proudly.

The 45-year-old big fan of Chinese idioms seems to have absorbed the traits of many Chinese - to be honest and modest.

The Shanghai Charity Foundation awarded him the title "Shanghai Charity Star" in 2005 for his strong sense of social responsibility and Shanghai Charity Award in January this year, but he always believes other people deserve such honors more than him and is reluctant to be labeled as a "charity hero."

"I grew up in a cultural and religious environment with a sense to give back to the community, to the poor people," he said.

His father Bader Abulaban was a strong influence on engendering his sense of "giving back," exemplified in a story from his childhood in Jordan that he has not shared with many people.

"When I was young, my father would give me several bags of meat two or three times a year, drive me in the car to a poor neighborhood and drop me off," he recalled. "I would knock on the doors and hand out the food. My father had adopted several elderly folks and we visited them frequently, but he didn't want anybody to know."

Abulaban's father taught him about "personal involvement and commiment." "My father told me it's not a favor to the world; it's my duty," he said. "He always said 'you have no idea how lucky we are to have what we have'."

Later in the United States, young Abulaban was amazed and inspired by well-organized, systematic charity institutions. He once thought Asian people were more committed to each other, while Americans were so individual and only cared about themselves. "I learned two things about charity," he said. "Number one: people in the world, despite race, color or origin, care about each other once their basic needs are met. Number two: caring needs 'a tone at the top,' that is, it should be done in an organized and systematic way."

Abulaban has always encouraged his China team to support local education, needy people and environmental protection and, as a result, know they have a responsibility to society. "Giving money is a one-time event, but personal caring is a lifetime event," he said.

He can remember clearly his visit to a senior people's home in Changchun, Jilin Province, with his Changchun team in October 2007. More than 30 young employees visited the elderly, performed song and dance routines and made dumplings. "It was a Saturday," he said. "They were all volunteers and there was no propaganda. I saw my dream of having a long lasting impact on a culture that has given me so much materialize before my eyes."

Abulaban had to hold back tears when he heard from the home director that the team's regular visits had brought the home to the government's attention and it had decided to build a new center for the elderly.

Abulaban and his team also responded quickly to the devastating earthquake that hit Sichuan Province last May.

"I called my plant managers the day after the earthquake and asked each one to make call for donations from our employees," he said. "In less than two days they collected more than 500,000 yuan (US$71,428). Some of our staff's salaries are less than 1,200 yuan a month. I was so proud of China, our Chinese leaders and my employees."

He added he was amazed at how far the country had progressed in terms of its generosity.

Abulaban believes his "giving back" was to reward the country and its people who gave him and his team help.

"I owe the country tremendously ... so many people have done more than me," he said. "I'm a most fortunate person surrounded by people who help me. I just try to give back the best way I know but I'm far from where I need to be."

Abulaban visited Shanghai for the first time in 1995, after living in Beijing for two years, but left two years later for Singapore. In another job relocation in 2002, he was offered a choice between Tokyo and Shanghai.

Abulaban and his wife Kim had eight days to choose - four days in Shanghai and four days in Tokyo. "We knew Shanghai and we didn't know Tokyo," he said. "To us, Chinese people are more friendly, more open than people in Japan."

The need to choose came in July 2002 when Abulaban was appointed Asia Pacific managing director and China chairman of Delphi Packard Electric Systems. In September last year, he became Delphi China President.

The 12-year experience in China has made him a "China hand," as well as a "Shanghai hand." He speaks good Chinese, but not Shanghai dialect, which to him "sounds like a totally different language."

He fondly remembers the culture shock he had during his first year in China. "Coming into a new culture is a challenge for anyone: language, social norms, food and unfamiliar surroundings," he said. "And in the case of China in 1993 (in Beijing), lack of modern health care, transportation, accommodation and Western food supplies were all problems."

But he also noted that the Chinese were eager to learn and worked hard to succeed, unlike in other countries. The people's commitment is really visible, he said, "you can see it, and get the feeling of what's going on."

The first Chinese person Abulaban met in Beijing in 1993 was an airport taxi driver called Chen Guohai. "He ended up being my driver in 1993 and remains a family friend," he said.

The first Shanghai person he met was a woman professor named Wan Mingyu, who served as his translator and later became his assistant and "Chinese mom." "She retired in 2005 and is still my dear friend," he said.

China's rapid economic growth has made a deep impression on Abulaban. "In 1995, when I first came to Shanghai, I stayed at the Peace Hotel and it took me three hours to get from the hotel to Hongqiao Airport," he recalled. "And when I came again in 2002, it took me only 50 minutes."

Talking about his achievements in China, Abulaban expressed his appreciation of the people here.

"My story in China is gratifying when I think of the impact we have had on people and the development (we have achieved) in the countries we operate in," he said. "In China, we have grown from less than 500 employees to 12,000 employees."

Today, Delphi China is the top automotive components company in the country. "We are proud of our reputation for quality, cost and delivery but we are most proud of our reputation for developing our people," he said. "Our Chinese employees are among the best trained in the industry and our Chinese executives are among the most respected."

Abulaban's contribution to the city has been recognized by the local government. He was conferred a Magnolia Award in 2004 by the city government and later a more prestigious Magnolia Gold Award in 2007. He received a Permanent Residence Permit, the Chinese Green Card for foreigners, last September in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the country's social and economic development.

Outside the office, Abulaban also has a happy family life. Emigrating to the US when he was 17, he graduated from University of Pittsburgh in 1985. He met his wife in college and they married a year after his graduation. They have two sons, Bader, now studying at his parents' alma mater, and Taylor who is still in high school.

"In 1994 in Beijing, two-year-old Taylor spoke more Chinese than English," he said. "And Bader once spent three years working in a Shanghai motorcycle shop and joined a Chinese cycling team."

Abulaban said that for leisure he loves to jog, listen to music and relax with a cigar. "One of the reasons I love Shanghai is that we can find a new restaurant every day," he said, sounding like he has really become a part of the city.


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