At the heart of Beijing’s swish Chaoyang District, where foreign embassy buildings are dotted with largesse, the AVIC Plaza stands as a monument to China’s corporate opulence.
The 26-storey high-rise building, home to one of China’s largest state-owned enterprises, is festooned with suits organizing the sales of turbojet engines, ground-to-air missiles and other aviation products.
It was chosen as the headquarters for the Aviation Industry Corporation of China. Lin Zuoming occupies the building’s executive floor. As president of the Chinese aviation giant, Lin is a key executive.
He is one of a cluster of elite Chinese businessmen whom are also members of the world’s most exclusive alumni network.
AVIC employs about 450,000 people across its 200 subsidiary companies, and reported turnover to the tune of $47.7 billion in 2012, along with $20.6 billion in profit. Several Western companies such as Airbus and Boeing are heavily involved in commercial deals with the Asian powerhouse.
Lin, who is also AVIC’s chief executive, is not alone. He is part of a business school group which includes over 2,500 chairmen and CEOs of Chinese businesses.
The alumni roster boasts big names including Fan Min, CEO of Ctrip, one of China's biggest online travel agencies, and Jack Ma, founder and chairman of e-commerce group Alibaba, which may raise about $20 billion when it enters a US stock market listing. Together the network controls 20% of China’s most valuable brands.
The Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business – CKGSB – has risen to prominence since its foundation in 2002.
China's first privately-owned school, CKGSB was established with the support of the Li Ka Shing Foundation, which has dished out HK$15 billion to education and healthcare organizations.
In 2011, the alumni group’s combined companies raked in $1 trillion in revenue, accounting for 12.7% of China’s GDP. If CKGSB’s alumni network were a nation, it would be the 16th largest economy on earth. Bing Xiang, CKGSB’s dean, has said “billionaires” go to the school to study.
“CKGSB is the only major business school in China that is faculty-governed,” said Lin.
“Its unique educational philosophy, world-class faculty, and forward-looking insight into China make it the top business school in China and a global resource.”
The school’s rise has coincided with the upsurge of China’s economy. Businesses as well as executives have been lured to Shanghai and Hong Kong – cities which are now more important to the global economy.
Sir Tom Hunter, Scotland’s first billionaire, sits on CKGSB's European Advisory Board, alongside former Lloyds TSB chairman Sir Victor Blank.
He has set up the Hunter Scholars Program, which will fund four annual bursaries – worth about $100,000 each – for students to complete an MBA at the business school’s Beijing base.
Sir Tom said: “No business can afford to ignore China and the opportunities it presents. China’s growth potential is phenomenal and the West needs to learn from China’s economic development, flexibility, adaptability and vision.”
With a small MBA cohort but a giant executive education department, CKGSB has been pumping out Chinese executives in droves.
There are now more than 7,000 alumni, according to last year’s data. About 5,000 of these alumni are from the executive classes. Each year the school scoops up about 600 CEOs and senior executives from privately-owned enterprises.
But the business school does not only recruit established home-grown talent. About 25% of the full-time MBA class is international, said Sarah Feng, senior manager of CKGSB’s MBA program. This figure has remained mostly flat.
Chuck Van Buren, an MBA from the class of 2009, said CKGSB was the obvious choice. The American wanted to transition from software development to digital marketing, and wanted to move into the Chinese market.
In January this year, he landed a job at Geometry Global, the digital marketing agency, in Beijing.
Chuck said: “My professors connected me to key players in the industry, strengthening my understanding of local markets and their global impact… I learnt that American perspectives were far from universal.”
However, Sarah said there has been a surge in Chinese applicants who are studying and working overseas. These managers are keen to kick-start careers back in their homeland, and are banking on CKGSB to make it happen.
She said: “We see strong demand from overseas Chinese who like to come back to China to start new careers. We have the most powerful alumni network, so our MBA program is a good platform for them to get to know China again – quickly.”
Billed at nearly $60,000, tuition is not cheap. Gaining admission will be even more difficult. The business school has a stringent applicant policy, and candidates are evaluated in great detail.
“We’ll see their company revenue, size, and their title. All of our programs are very strict [with] admissions –that’s why we remain such a top business school,” said Sarah, confidence not in short supply.
Part of the appeal is a top-class faculty. CKGSB has been luring professors and academics from other business schools around the world.
There are around 45 full-time faculty members. About 83% of full-time professors obtained tenure positions from world’s 30 leading schools. At CKGSB, professors are given 10-year contracts that are automatically renewed.
Dr. Xiang Bing, the school’s founding Dean, said that CKGSB is widely recognized for its world-class faculty.
The business school insists that it is focused on research, as opposed to teaching. As such, it is ranked 6th globally for per capita publication in academic journals between 2006 and 2011.
Many of these professors have been poached from leading US business schools such as Yale, Wharton and Columbia.
“We have recruited a lot of top professors from global business schools, and they join full-time to teach all the programs, which is very special,” Sarah said.
An elite crop of executive alumni may not be enough to see CKGSB rise to the top of the pyramid.
Some also think the school is unashamedly elitist. While big US business schools have sought to diversify their classes, about 75% of CKGSB’s MBA cohort is from China.
The majority of its case studies, learning methods which form much of an MBA curriculum, are focused on companies in China.
There are signs that the school recognizes the need to become more global. A recent EMBA partnership with IMD, the Swiss business school, was struck in March this year. That follows a string of strategic partnerships and exchange programs with leading North American and European schools including INSEAD and Stanford.
CKGSB has also established campuses outside of its main three bases – Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen – with overseas branches in Hong Kong, London and New York.
Sarah said: “We keep a good relationship with top business schools around the world… It’s a global view.”
But the vast majority of its students come to China to begin Chinese careers. “International students really like to stay,” Sarah added.
Still, the school continues to attract the country’s most successful business figures. Companies are keen to send their senior managers to join CKGSB’s growing roster of elite alumni.
Malcom Sweeting, senior partner at multinational law firm Clifford Chance, said: “We could go and talk to the leading European business schools. We could go and talk to the leading US business schools. But if you want to get a view on globalization through a China lens, then it is much more valuable for our senior management to come to Beijing… because that gives us the perspective we need.”