Bruce is a US executive with broad international experience in managing businesses, sourcing and making investments, and providing investment banking services, executive coaching, and leadership development services. His 17 years of experience working in Shanghai gave him an in-depth understanding of the business environment in China and developing Asia.
Currently, Bruce is a Managing Director at Stout Bluepeak Asia Limited and a Partner at Rui Dian Management Consulting /The Resilience Institute.
In this episode, Bruce shared his origin story, going to UC Berkeley and studying business, and eventually going into investment banking. He also went to Harvard Business School to get his MBA and entered venture capital.
Bruce also talked about his amazing experiences in Shanghai, how the pandemic shifted the international scene, how he navigated through these changes, and how he can help companies venture into the international markets successfully.
On his experience in investment banking early on
I really enjoyed the deals, working on transactions that you read about in the journal, having access to CEOs and CFOs of companies, and helping provide them strategic advice about how to manage their businesses in regards to raising capital or mergers and acquisitions.
How the Chinese economy has changed throughout the years
China has produced a lot of wealth, taken a lot of people out of poverty. But there’s now a sense of them needing international technical skills, capital, and technology, and they’re starting to have that on their own. They’ve got people who’ve trained at the best universities, they have a lot of capital, and they are starting to generate some unique technologies. So, I would say there’s less of a need, in their minds, for so many foreigners and so much international influence. There’s a big push for localization of talent.
On venturing into management consulting
After I left the firm that brought me to China in 2012, I decided to leverage the experience of living and managing in Asia, primarily China, in helping other executives who came to the area understand what it’s like to manage in a developing market and giving them that perspective.
I found a big demand for coaching services, essentially that cross-border nexus of people coming into China or Chinese managers having to go out needing coaching services. So, I’ve maintained that for 10 years and actually really enjoy helping people see the light, adjusting their management style, and achieving their career objectives.
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:01] Sean: Bruce is a U.S. executive with broad international experience, and he spent the last 17 years in Shanghai, China in managing businesses, sourcing and making investments, providing investment banking services, executive coaching, and leadership development services. Bruce is a undergrad alumni of our Haas School Business. And we welcome you to the podcast, Bruce.
[00:22] Bruce: Great to be here, Sean.
[00:24] Sean: Now, Bruce, just to give our listeners some context, I met Bruce at an alumni event down here in Los Angeles when Dean Harrison came down here to speak a few weeks back. Your story, your background has really fascinated me. So, let’s start from the beginning. I want to hear your origin story and where you’re from and where you grew up.
[00:48] Bruce: I actually was born in the Midwest, in Cleveland, Ohio. But I was raised in Northern California. My parents divorced at a very early age when I was about four or five. And when my mother remarried, we moved to the village of Mendocino, which is about three and a half hours North of San Francisco on the coast. And I’m a proud graduate of Mendocino High School. And then I matriculated to UC Berkeley that fall of 1982.
[01:16] Sean: What was Mendocino like back then? You said it’s growing up in a village of 1,000. Because that’s not Mendocino nowadays.
[01:25] Bruce: It’s not. And it was the golden years in the ‘70s and ‘80s, people actually lived in the town. Now, it’s kind of more like the Murder, She Wrote movie set where it’s just people coming for tourism, but people don’t really live there in the town center. So, there really was a real strong sense of belonging to the community. I actually had a paper route. I delivered the Santa Rosa Press Democrat when I was in middle school, played American football and basketball for the local high school, of course. And it was really a good upbringing, frankly.
[02:00] Sean: And aside from its proximity, what brought you to Berkeley?
[02:05] Bruce: Back then, you didn’t apply to 20 schools. I applied to two schools, to the UC system — Berkeley, UCLA, and Santa Cruz with one application. And the second application was actually to Case Western Reserve University in my city of birth, Cleveland, Ohio. And I was accepted to both and was all ready to go to Case to be an engineer. But then Case was a private school and that cost about $10,000 a year. And UC Berkeley was about $1,000 a year back then. That’s for a full year of tuition, by the way, $1,000.
[02:36] Sean: Wow.
[02:38] Bruce: But Berkeley just felt right. It just felt like the right place to be. I just loved everything about the vibe, the campus, and never regretted going.
[02:46] Sean: It sounds like you wanted to go into engineering. How did you end up in business at Haas?
[02:52] Bruce: Actually, my father was, “You need a good degree. Get a business degree or an engineering degree. And Case had a very good engineering program.” But I had more drawn to business. And I mentioned having a paper route when I was 10 or 11. I worked after school in the local liquor store, village spirits, and just always had a sense for business and decided to pursue that. The Haas School, obviously, was just a two-year program. So, you had to come into Berkeley through the College of Letters and Science and be undeclared. But I kind of knew I would do something in commerce.
[03:25] Sean: And how did that lead you to investment banking? That’s a very interesting choice.
[03:36] Bruce: Yes. Obviously, coming from a place like Mendocino, my parents weren’t bankers or lawyers or doctors or anything like that to educate me about things like Wall Street. I think it was when I was taking finance classes and seeing about how deals were being done… This was the ‘80s. So, you had the whole high-yield market exploding with Mike Milken. There was a lot of talk in the business school, in the Wall Street Journal, etc., about Wall Street and doing deals. Liar’s Poker had just come out, things of that nature, just to educate you and see if you were interested in pursuing, working with large companies, and doing big transactions.
[04:23] Sean: We’d love to hear some of your stories, I guess, because, again, I grew up reading Liar’s Poker, Den of Thieves. I’m a huge fan of Liar’s Poker, actually.
[04:34] Bruce: Right. I read both of those. Yeah, I read Liar’s Poker, Den of Thieves. Deciding to go back to business school would accelerate that process. And that’s why I pursued it. I didn’t apply to Haas. I realized that I didn’t want to go back to the institution I had just graduated from, and I also wanted to try the East Coast experience. So, I applied to a Harvard’s MBA program. And back then, they had a deferred admission program where, if you get accepted, they would take you and let you finish your analyst program and come in two years. So, I kind of did a hybrid of that. I was accepted after one year and then finish my two-year program and then matriculated there. And that was even a bigger springboard to get into investment banking, frankly. Just having access to the East Coast and being there, and not to mention the Harvard Alumni Network.
[05:25] Sean: And you stayed out there for quite a bit, it seems like, with Solomon, right?
[05:32] Bruce: Yes, so be careful where you go to grad school. A lot of people tend to stay in the city or location where you do attend. And so, right after business school, it was actually in 1991, that was a recession. Pretty deep one, actually, the ‘91, ‘92. It caused Bush to lose his reelection. But essentially, a lot of banks were not hiring at the time when I graduated. And I ended up going into venture capital where I worked for a minority-focused venture capital firm called UNC Venture, which had institutional money-making investments and small entrepreneurs. Actually, some of them became quite big and went public. So, I did that for about a year and then moved to CoreStates Bank where I did mezzanine finance in Philadelphia. So that was Boston for a year, and then Philadelphia for two years. And then I joined Salomon Brothers in 1994 in their associate program to join the investment banking ranks.
[06:33] Sean: Wow. It’s one of the things I’ve always wondered what it was. It wasn’t that long ago, but I remember reading those books in high school. And it just fascinated me what banking would’ve been like back then. And occasionally, I get invited to attend the Milken conference here in LA and just see him and some of the other people in person. It is like watching a movie and then getting to see the celebrities live. That’s how it feels.
[07:13] Bruce: So, investment banking joining Salomon at the time was one of the bulge bracket firms. And it’s a part it’s a part of Citibank now its legacy. But this was right after their treasury scandal where they had to clear out the senior leadership from Liar’s Poker. All those guys were. Let go. And Derek Mon came in and ran it. But it was just interesting. It was small enough at the time that you could see the CEO in the elevator, and he’d recognize you. It was only 7,000 employees globally. Whereas when it got acquired by Citigroup it became a part of a hundred thousand person conglomerate. But until you actually live through it is such a different culture, especially in New York. Which claims to work harder than anyone else in the world when it comes to investment banking.
But I remember a friend of mine visiting me from California, from Cal, on a Saturday night. And I said, “I met with Salomon Trade. Just come on by, and we’ll go out to dinner after that.” And he came into the building and he’s like, “What are all these people doing here? This is Saturday night.” And I wasn’t alone at my desk in my cubicle. I was like, this is investment banking. I mean, people are working over the weekend on the evenings, and just the civilian mindset of why would you do that and waste your 20s. It kind of hit me in the face at the time, what am I doing?
But I really enjoyed the deals, working on transactions that you read about in the journal, having access to CEOs and CFOs of companies, and helping provide them strategic advice about how to manage their businesses in regards to raising capital or mergers and acquisitions.
[08:44] Sean: So, the task with all that excitement, what ultimately made you leave and move to Shanghai, of all places?
[08:53] Bruce: So, after 10 years in investment banking, culminating in 2001, which was another recession. And then, I left to the industry then. And after a brief stint as the CFO, just to try dot-com side, although this was the remnants of dot-com, I went into the private equity side of the business, a group called Avenue Capital, and I joined the Asia group. They made direct investments in either companies or in distressed debt. But a lot of those, positions were turning to be restructured had to be worked out needed, investment bank, financial advisory services. So, they wanted that capability in-house. And I joined the Asia group.
And about 2004, they decided to move the professionals from New York to Asia. Instead of having them fly in every other month, it was like, you guys need to be positioned out here to work with the local research teams. And at the time they had a Beijing office, where I spent about a summer with my family, just to see what it would be like. And then, we also did a weekend in Shanghai, and I don’t know if you’ve been to both cities. Shanghai, for someone who’s not Chinese, is a much more easier transition, than to Beijing, especially back in 2005.
So, this was right after WTO was improved in 2003 and China was about to take off. And so, we were expanding our offices there. And so, essentially, I volunteered to open the avenue office in Shanghai is what brought me there. The chance to run an office, establish it, and staff it up and make investments throughout Asia.
So I packed up the family the wife who’s not Chinese, and my kids aren’t Chinese, and none of us are Chinese. Decided to take this flyer. We figure it would be a couple of years and then come back to New Jersey. But one year turned into another and we fell in love with the city. Shanghai’s a very international city, very cosmopolitan. And, of course, the Chinese economy was just booming at the time.
[10:57] Sean: Has all that changed in the recent years?
[11:02] Bruce: China has produced a lot of wealth, taken a lot of people out of poverty. A couple hundred million people legitimately have created a higher standard of living. But there’s now a sense of when I talked earlier them needing international technical skills, capital, and technology. They’re starting to have that on their own. They’ve got people who’ve trained at the best universities. They have a lot of capital. And they are starting to generate some unique technologies. I would say there’s less of a need in their minds for so many foreigners and so much international influence.
And so, you definitely feel that over the last seven or eight years. That’s changed from, “We really need you need to come here,” to, “You know what? Keep investing. But there’s a big push for localization of talent.” And then COVID just accelerated that. So, if you have a vice president and then a president or general manager, the Chinese person might be the number two and the foreign might be the number one. There’s a big push to say you need to promote the VP when the president rotates out of his or her three-year contract or whatever.
So that’s what’s really changed, a big push to localize the talent, and competence, frankly, that they’re more independent and stronger. And that’s frankly true. While I was there, the economy went from 15th in the world or whatever it was to now second. And we’ll see if they get to number one in the next five or 10 years. But that that transition happened and with that came a lot of confidence. But at the same time, the golden years are gone. It’s a lot harder to make money in China right now. Before if you had a foreign brand or superior technology you were better than the local competition. But that’s changed. The local competition has run a lot faster and gotten a lot smarter and producing products and services that in some industries are comparable or superior to what the international markets offer, or international companies, I should say.
[13:07] Sean: It comes back to this idea of how of this generation of people that have studied overseas. They’re in my opinion, living double lives. Every time I taught them, it’s not like they’re oblivious they are very intelligent people.
[13:21] Bruce: Very cognizant of it.
[13:22] Sean: Right?
[13:23] Bruce: Yes.
[13:24] Sean: But how do you continue living under the veil? Especially as the veil weakens in many ways that we’ve seen like the cracks in the system.
[13:37] Bruce: Well, up until COVID you could live a very international life. You just happened to be working in Shanghai or Beijing. But you could go for summers in August and be in Europe. And you could do the holiday in New Zealand and go skiing in Japan. And Whistler there wasn’t that much difference between your life in San Francisco and your life in Shanghai. You lived in a subdivision, a gated community. Your kids went to private school. My kids were able to do just about everything that your kids can do in America. They played American football, they had cub scouts. Church even was permitted so synagogue what have you. All of that was there—Michelin-starred restaurants. There wasn’t that much difference once if you lived in a certain socioeconomic status and neighborhood, we’re all in the same zip codes, right?
[14:29] Sean: Right.
[14:32] Bruce: And so, that quality of life is still there. Now with COVID, obviously I changed everything—zero COVID. You can’t go see your parents, you can’t go to graduations, you can’t go to funerals. It’s crazy, but so that’s really changed the calculation for a lot of returnees. In 2019, because of business and personal, I came to California five times from Shanghai, direct flights, reasonable prices. And I saw my mother in California more than my brother in New Jersey. I was coming and going through San Francisco. So it was normal of part of an international lifestyle. But COVID changed that. So, a lot of those people the upper middle class Chinese the wealthy Chinese are going to start to say, well I don’t have that anymore. Is it worth it? It changes the calculation.
[15:21] Sean: And what do you think they’ll do? Do you think they’ll leave?
[15:27] Bruce: People are definitely diversifying and hedging their strategies their personal strategies. Making sure they have second homes or maybe their kids decided to go abroad for education, whereas before they hadn’t considered it. They continue to work in Shanghai and Beijing. But you’re seeing definitely more of a diversification strategy about assets as well as lifestyle living strategies.
[15:55] Sean: To bring that whole conversation back to you. How are you navigating this?
[16:03] Bruce: Right.
[16:05] Sean: And you know what exactly if you could tell our listeners in terms of where you’re doing at Stout Bluepeak Group which is still based in Shanghai. How are you navigating this and how are you looking at all this?
[16:19] Bruce: So, I am also diversifying of my living strategy of talking what I speak. So, with the inability to go back and forth easily. My wife and I are empty nesters, so all of my adult children are in California now. And so, we’re in California right now and we monitor the COVID situation in Shanghai very closely but don’t feel the need to rush back. Primarily because the world has shifted to virtual. So, my Chinese clients in country understand that I can still access them and provide my services. I have a team in Shanghai that can do that ground research or groundwork. And my wife has an education consulting business. And she hasn’t lost one client from China or anywhere for that matter. We want shifted to virtual.
So that allows us essentially to work from anywhere in the world. The time zone’s a little tricky 4:00 PM in California is 8:00 AM in Shanghai so I’ve got to stay up to midnight —a few nights a week. But it’s still very doable. COVID is definitely shifted the receptivity to working virtually and so we’ve adopted that. I would love I really miss Shanghai it’s a great city. But I don’t need to go back to do my business essentially. And until they loosen. How they manage it. I suffered through the Shanghai lockdown. I came to LA for Christmas. The Olympics, there weren’t that many flights people realized Beijing had the Winter Olympics.
And then right after the Olympics, I went back to Shanghai, did my three weeks of quarantine —two weeks with the government hotel, one week at home. And then we went into this four-day weekend where they were going to lock down and test everyone. And that went for 60 days —two months. Now, we were very fortunate in that we were in a subdivision like we’d find in Southern California with detached houses. And we could walk around our community but people in the towers were locked into their apartments for 60 days. You only leave to go down to get tested. If you had kids or a dog or whatever, you couldn’t leave the apartment, it was really tough. In looking at that we decided we don’t need to rush back to that type of environment with the uncertainty we can still do commerce, keep our clients happy and service them. Without having to subject ourselves to that lifestyle.
[18:45] Sean: And can you actually tell us a little bit more about what you do at Stout Bluepeak and what Stout Bluepeak is about?
[18:53] Bruce: Sure. So, we’re essentially a cross-border financial advisory firm. We sit at that nexus of international companies who want to come into China to make an investment, or an acquisition, or to raise capital from Chinese investors where it might be strategically important to do in certain industries. And then conversely, up until recently, there were a lot of Chinese companies who wanted to go outbound. And come to the US in making investment or make an acquisition. And so, we really focus on cross-border financial advisory services —private placements or M&A or joint venture partner searches—things of that nature.
[19:32] Sean: And how did you get into management consulting? On the side, I know you had the Rudy and Management Consultant.
[19:41] Bruce: Right. So, after I left the firm that brought me to China in 2012, I decided to leverage the experience of living and managing aid in Asia, primarily China, in helping other executives who came to the area understand what it’s like to manage in a developing market and giving them that perspective. And then conversely, I found, as we talked about this localization of Chinese talent, there were a lot of Chinese managers who worked for MMCs and now had to spend more than half their time interacting with their colleagues outside of China. And that’s a different leadership style and management style that they had exhibited.
And so, I found a big demand for coaching services in those two groups, essentially that cross-border nexus of people coming into China or Chinese managers having to go out needing coaching services. So, I’ve maintained that for 10 years and actually really enjoy helping people see the light, adjusting their management style, and achieving their career objectives.
[20:43] Sean: I really appreciate you sharing that. What you just reminded me about this about my whole mindset around this entire conversation we just had is that pre-COVID, I was actually pretty bullish on China and just the international landscape, and post-COVID because I’ve been locked down and at home for so long that I’ve lost that perspective. And to me it the outside world actually seems like a scary place now in some ways. That’s not the right mentality to have to if you want to make the world a better place.
[21:25] Bruce: Well, we can still travel internationally or even across the us we’ll be doing a lot more meals outside, because of the lower preponderance of transfer when you’re in an outdoor setting. So, I try and do most of my meetings or dinners outside, dress warmly. But I prefer to do a copy outside or dinner outside so that that helps and to take precautions. But we’re social beings we like to interact, and you can only do so much virtual. But there’s definitely a greater receptivity to conducting business. Even new people say, “Okay, I can keep my old clients through Zoom or to team’s meetings.” But it’s hard to get new business. Well, things have shifted right there. There is more of an acceptance to do a pitch on video conference. The technology’s better and there’s just like, well, we just need to do it this way to accommodate people and keep everyone safe. So, there’ll definitely be more of a hybrid going forward.
You still need, in some instances to have face-to-face meetings, but it’ll be less and less important to growing a business or to managing a business. It’s definitely harder, you miss the small talk. Getting to know people and I advise some of my coachee clients to you got to have a Zoom call just to connect with people. Don’t run through the agenda don’t just ask them how the numbers are, how are you doing? How’s your family? What are you thinking? The things you used to do in a social setting. We’ve totally eliminated that from a lot of our virtual meetings, and we need to bring some of that back in order to sustain people’s need for connectivity.
[23:01] Sean: Well, my last question for you, Bruce is what are some what are some reasons or good ways for Haas alumni who are listening to reach out to you?
[23:10] Bruce: Yes, you can find me on LinkedIn. I’m active in providing financial services as well as coaching services. And also just reconnecting with people now that I’m spending more time in the US. So, I’m currently in the Southern California area but do come up to the Bay Area where I have family and would love to attend a Cal football game at some point near future. I was a big sports guy so that’s what I would recommend. I’m also looking at ways where I can leverage my international experience in helping a lot of companies in the US figure out how to not only access China but other international markets. What type of mindset that takes, what type of people do you need to hire and develop? What type of partners do you need to find? A lot of pitfalls and mistakes you can avoid by having someone with perspective, who haven’t lived abroad and helped companies enter, developing markets. So, look forward to meeting a lot more Haas’s who are thinking about that and see if I can be helpful and sharing my experiences and perspectives.
[24:11] Sean: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today, Bruce. It’s been a real pleasure.
[24:16] Bruce: Okay. Really enjoyed it Sean and look forward to seeing a lot more folks from Haas.