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Inside the Boardroom with Leading Bilinguals: Bill Johnson

Now the head of Kone’s China Division, Bill Johnson didn’t have an easy start with the language that has greatly shaped his career—but persistence made all the difference.

Bill wasn’t a natural at Chinese. During college at Boston University he struggled in his Chinese class. So he decided that over the summer he would enroll in an intensive Chinese program at neighboring Harvard.

“I was sitting there with all these Harvard students, who were clearly better than I was. After two weeks, I was overwhelmed, and went in to see Professor Yan. I told her I was finding it difficult and asked if she had any suggestions. She said, ‘I think you should go get your money back because you’ll never be able to learn Chinese.’  That wasn’t the answer I was looking for.”

Bill grew up in New Brighton, CT, and recalls that while nobody spoke a foreign language at home, “we were all very musical. I played French horn, and in fact went to BU to be a music major, but once I got there I realized that being a musician was not a really bright future for me.”

“I started taking liberal arts and took a class in Asian history and started to work with a professor from India. This was 1978, Carter was in the White House and was going to recognize China diplomatically. Nixon had already done his thing. When I went home on break, my father, who was a well-read man, said, ‘Bill, you should study Chinese.’ And I said, ‘You’re crazy!’ I didn’t do well in Spanish in high school and was dreading the language requirement at BU.”

But back on campus, “my professor said to me ‘You will study Chinese.’ It wasn’t a question. And that’s how I started.”

There wasn’t much Chinese taught at BU so, in addition to the summer course at Harvard, he went to nearby Tuffs to take classes. He did poorly enough that he had to repeat the class. In another summer, Bill took the immersion program at Middlebury College. “When they tested me, they said I’d have to take beginning Chinese again. But I just couldn’t do it for a third time, so they said, well ‘okay, but you’ll have to work hard’.”

At Middlebury Bill wasn’t supposed to speak English at all.

“I was introduced to the concept of Chinese education and it was fascinating and humbling. They separated you out in two different groups based on weekly test results. I was in the moon group and we weren’t as bright as the sun group. But I kept at it. I found an interesting fellow there and he kept me going. He was a West Point grad and was studying like me, although he was a Captain in the army. Later he became a General and head of special forces in Afghanistan after 9/11.”

On the eve of graduating from BU, Bill decided to apply to the elite Stanford Center in Taipei. “I had to send in two cassette tapes with my application. They rejected me.”

“I called them up and they said that I had actually passed the test but had been rejected because I wasn’t enrolled in a Ph.D. program, and that their program was for scholars who were studying Chinese art history or linguistics and needed to improve their language skills, and that the program was full.”

“Well,” I asked, “what if someone didn’t show up?”

“That’s not up to us,” they said.

“I decided I was going to Taiwan anyway and take my chances. I bought a one-way ticket and my dad gave me $600 in cash and I got on a plane in June of 1981.”

“I had an address of some youth hostel I could stay in. So a woman I met on the flight offered to take me to the address. I was my first real chance to speak Chinese. It turned out there was no room. But they said there was a room to an international house so I went there. I was overdressed dragging two suitcases and they fed me…this was real China and it was a shocker.”

“When I got to the international house it turned out there wasn’t a room, just a bed in a room. When I knocked on the door, a guy answered it and I said, ‘Hey, I know you!’ He was in Middlebury with me the summer before.”

“The next day I went to the Stanford Center and met a very nice fellow named James Anderson. He said they were all booked and that no one had dropped out, but I told him I would come back. About a week before the program was to start, I went to the Hilton Hotel in Taipei desperate for a western meal and there’s Anderson. He says, ‘We’ve been looking for you—someone dropped out’.”

I asked Bill why he kept going in the face of all the setbacks. “I have no idea. In the darker days of being rejected and having to repeat, I don’t know why I kept going.”

After his time in Taipei, Bill went to business school at Northwestern, married a woman from Columbia, and moved to Florida to sell real estate. “But the real estate crash of 1989 came and my wife was pregnant. Otis Elevator was hiring and there was an opening, believe it or not, in Shanghai. That was 1993, and I’ve been living in China ever since.”

Bill moved from Otis to Carrier and eventually to the Finnish elevator company Kone. He was promoted to President of the Greater China Division in 2004.

“When I began with Kone, we were doing $70 million in sales and the whole Chinese division was operating in English, as was our entire company.”

But Bill recognized that operating in English was holding the Chinese company back. “I go to Finland once a month and I said to our management, let me switch the company back to Chinese.”

“Today we do $3 billion in sales and have 14,000 employees. Being able to use Chinese unleashed all the talent that was here. Most of my senior people speak English and can interact with the international types, but we also have a lot of people who do well in the company without having English skills. Speaking and using Chinese let me understand their capabilities and promote them. Even though some of them speak English, all of them like the fact that we can operate very quickly in Chinese.”

After all these years is his Chinese perfect? “My staff makes fun of my grammar, but say my pronunciation is good.”

When Bill advises young people he says, “If you really want to learn a language, make it your full-time job for a year. Take a couple of semesters before you come to the country, and summer courses, but then you have to make learning the language your job for a year (I did it for 18 months). Then stop studying and just use it day in and day out in a practical way. Then you’ll begin to get a feel for how things actually work.”

Bill’s own children speak English, Spanish, and Chinese. Bill says:

“If you don’t speak another language, people are going to eat your lunch.”

Language Profile by Steve Leveen

Steve Leveen, co-founder of the Levenger Company, is writing a book on bilingualism in America and is host of the podcast America the Bilingual. Part of his research over the past two years was conducted while a fellow at Stanford and Harvard.