Chen Feng is chairman of HNA Group Co., the parent company of Hainan Airlines, which is set to launch Boston’s first nonstop flight to Beijing on Friday using the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The route marks the airline’s third US destination — and Logan Airport’s first five-star service, the highest airline quality rating given by the British airline consultancy Skytrax.
Chen, 60, an economist by training, flew to Boston on his private jet recently to meet with academic, government, and business leaders at the Harvard Business Club. Afterward, he spoke with reporter Katie Johnston (with occasional translation help from his son, Daniel, president of the company’s North American division). Here’s what she found out:
1 Chen Feng and his wife did not have the option of having a larger family, due to China’s strict population control program — which has recently been eased — limiting most couples to one child. Chen is in favor of the program, noting that China’s booming population needs to be reined in.
“Three earths cannot sustain the population of China,” he said. “I always say, we each have our fate and destiny. But there is one common issue that we need to look into together and that’s the issue of environmental sustainability.”
2 The number of Chinese tourists is skyrocketing, and Chen sums up their main activities with two verbs: snap and shop, with an emphasis on the former.
“Basically snapping photos everywhere, taking it back to share with family – ‘Look, I’ve been here.’ Harvard University should post signs at each entrance and charge a fee for the snap-and-shop folks. It will generate a lot of revenue.”
3 Chen, who taught himself English, spent a month a year for three years in Boston, attending Harvard Business School, eventually earning a senior management diploma in 2004. He didn’t have time for much sightseeing, however, as his nose was always in a book.
“Harvard Business School training course: terrible. Loads of reading materials. It’s impossible to read it [all].”
4 Chen is refreshingly honest. He admits he would have preferred to make New York Hainan’s third US destination — after Seattle and Chicago — instead of Boston.
“Of course, everybody likes New York. New York is the first choice, but New York has too much competition.”
5 When Chen founded Hainan in 1993, he pushed the beverage cart up and down the aisle of the airline’s first plane to serve passengers.
“We wanted to establish Hainan Airlines, to distinguish ourselves from everyone else as a fully service-oriented company, starting with myself. I pushed the cart serving the passengers to set a standard and set a difference.”
6 Chen studies traditional Chinese culture and encourages his staff to do the same. He reads literature, history, and philosophy and devotes himself to writing 400 characters a day about what he has learned. This is not only a learning exercise, he said, but a form of meditation that leads to self-realization.
“I advocate the learning of Chinese culture, which consists of three pillars: one, Daoism; two, Buddhism; and three, Confucianism. I believe that if the Chinese do not learn and understand the core values of the traditional culture, there will be no foundation for future growth. As we all learn here in Western business school, profitability is the number one thing. In the recent 100 years or so, a corporation has become a monster all by itself, absorbing and indulging in every resource it can to chunk out profitability without considering much of the environment and the well-being of the overall [society].’’
7 Hainan’s headquarters, in Haikou, the capital of the tropical island province Hainan, are in a building constructed to look like a sitting Buddha.
“The Buddha carries the ultimate ideology of values, [and] the company thinks its ultimate target should also be those three values. One is the feeling of compassion for every human being; and two is enlightenment, wisdom; and number three is to benefit the entire society of human beings.”Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.