Gaultier Letourneau-Ross completed the Collaborative Master’s Program in Asia-Pacific Studies with Political Science in August 2013. He was drawn to the program not only due to its reputation and high profile within the Munk School of Global Affairs and the University of Toronto, but also due to the attractiveness of the collaborative angle: “Having students from different disciplinary backgrounds in the same room discussing Asia-Pacific issues just seemed like a good fit.” After conducting fieldwork in China over the summer (funded by a Dr. David Chu scholarship in Asia-Pacific Studies), he landed a job with one of the companies he interviewed for his research – Avia-Tek, a consulting firm on the Chinese aviation industry in Shanghai. We asked Gaultier to tell us more about how his experience in MAPS prepared him for the job.
AI: Can you briefly describe the topic of your major research paper?
GLR: I was looking at China’s quest to become globally competitive in high-end industries. My case study was commercial aerospace—so airliners like those made by Boeing and Airbus. China is trying to move into those higher-value industries as it is transitioning from a low-income country to a medium and (hopefully) high-income one. They also want to develop these kinds of industries because a lot of the technology and manufacturing processes are “dual-use,” meaning they can be used by the civilian and military sectors—and China wants more military power. Third, they are doing it for national prestige. Building a commercial airliner is one of the most complex engineering feats around—it’s really a sign that your country has arrived. Pretty much only the US, Canada, Europe—and two BRIC countries, Russia and Brazil—have been able to do it. Japan sort of does it.
China has been trying for many decades, and actually started in the 1950s, just like Brazil. They do build aircraft that fly, but they are not commercially competitive. Only some Chinese airlines have used them (sometimes reluctantly), as well as CCP-friendly countries like Cambodia and Tonga (sometimes the planes were actually gifts from the Chinese government to friendly countries). So China has tried, and it hasn’t completely failed—it has been partially successful. The planes fly, but few carriers want them. So my research looks at why the central government’s plan (to develop a self-sufficient, globally competitive aircraft industry) hasn’t been working, but has nonetheless led to a viable (though not competitive) industry.
It becomes more interesting when you look at another large-scale, high-end industry—the auto industry. China also wants to have globally competitive cars, and after 40 years of trying, they’re still not quite there. Here also, China does produce viable cars, but they are generally inferior in technology, safety, and reliability (although this is getting better). Foreign brands (Toyota, Ford, GM, etc.) control 70% of the country’s auto market. Exports are still trivial. In contrast, the auto industries in Japan and South Korea were already an export force just 30 years after efforts began.
So why? I used a dual approach (derived from U of T professor Dan Breznitz and Michael Murphree’s 2011 book Run of the Red Queen), which looks at the global level and the domestic level.
First, at the global level, the “global business revolution,” a consequence of the globally fragmented value chain, has made it more difficult for new contenders to enter high-end industries, which are now dominated by a small number of extremely specialized global firms. In this context, the Chinese government has increasingly encouraged its firms to cooperate with foreign partners to benefit from technology and knowledge transfers. But the Chinese side has become reliant and even dependant on the foreign partner in many cases. The incentive for indigenous product development is low because the state-owned enterprises (SOE) in joint ventures benefit from the foreign partner’s R&D, experience and brand awareness. Moreover, the foreign counterpart is careful not to bring its latest and most cutting-edge technology and knowledge to China. From the SOE managers’ point of view, it pays to keep this going, but it doesn’t promote the central government’s goal of independent product development.
Second, at the domestic level, the high degree of uncertainty built into the Chinese political- economic system discourages firms from engaging in long-term, high-risk projects, and makes coordination and cooperation between core firms and suppliers difficult and inefficient. Additionally, the central government’s relatively weak capacity to control what happens on the ground allows state-owned enterprises to partly pursue their own interest, which diffuses potentially productive resources and makes top-down coordination harder.
AI: How did you develop the research topic for your MRP? Is it something that you knew you had wanted to do all along, or did it evolve over the course of your Master’s program?
GLR: I was originally going to work on Canada-China relations at a more theoretical level—that’s what I wrote on my application for MAPS. But that changed because I wanted to do something that would be valuable to a potential employer. I’ve always had a passion for aviation and wanted to work in that sector, but it was only while thinking about my MRP topic that I realized I could achieve this goal. I studied political science—I’m not an engineer or a management student, but I can bring specific knowledge to the projects we work on in Shanghai.
AI: Conducting fieldwork isn’t a requirement for the MRP. What made you decide to apply for a Dr. David Chu scholarship to conduct research in China?
GLR: To me this was a great opportunity to go to China and have a first experience doing field research there. And it was really worth it. The people I met there gave me crucial insights on my topic—the kind if stuff you can’t find in the books at Robarts. I strongly recommend applying.
AI: How did you conduct the preliminary and field research for your MRP?
GLR: I did a lot of reading on the topic before I left. I knew a lot about aviation beforehand, but not specifically about Chinese aviation. Then I read about high-end industries, industrial policymaking, and so on. I also talked to some professors for guidance on documentary research and fieldwork; special thanks to Professor Lynette Ong and John Fraser, Master of Massey College, for their help.
Before leaving for China, I made a list of people I wanted to meet and I contacted them. It’s amazing what a well-written email can do! But there’s only such much you can do before you are on location. A lot came together in the field in my case. I got an invite to an aviation forum, where I met many people that I would not have known about. I guess some of it is luck, but you can create your luck, in a sense.
I interviewed consultants, executives from major aircraft manufacturers, and a few foreign businessmen who use Chinese firms as suppliers. I also went to the China Aerospace Museum in Beijing, which gave some historical perspective to my work.
I wanted to visit factories, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to find the right contacts. Now that I work for this company here in Shanghai, I get to do just that. We went to COMAC (the Chinese national aircraft maker, equivalent to Boeing) headquarters at Pudong Airport recently—I would have really appreciated to visit that during my fieldwork... But hey, you will never get everything. I realized how hard fieldwork is! It was such a good experience.
AI: How did the MAPS program help prepare you to succeed in your research?
GLR: I think it’s important to have one professor who kind of mentors you through the process—for me it was Professor Ong. MAPS, the Asian Institute, the Munk School, and U of T have a lot of resources available for students—it’s really up to us to make full use of them. In some ways I think students have to be entrepreneurial, which is good because it prepares you for the real world in a way.
Presenting our initial research ideas in front of the ASI1000 class was extremely beneficial. This is the advantage of MAPS and ASI1000, the core course of the program: you develop your ideas from a specific perspective (in my case political science), and then you get comments from your peers, who come from other disciplines. This really enriches you project.
AI: How did you get your job with Avia-Tek?
GLR: I learned about this company during my preliminary research in Toronto. I sent them an email explaining who I was and what my project was. I asked them if I could go to their office in Shanghai and ask them some questions about the industry. At that point, I had done a lot of preliminary research, so I knew a fair amount about Chinese aerospace. I guess I caught their attention. They responded saying my project was interesting and they were happy to help me out. When I got there, they were really helpful. They gave me lots of documents and showed me powerpoint presentations, etc. After two hours, we started talking about what I wanted to do after graduation. I said I was looking for a job, and I really wanted to go back to China to start my career.
So I was extremely lucky, but again—you can definitely “create” your luck. They said I could start with them in Shanghai. So here I am, I’ve been here 7 months and I love it.
AI: Can you tell us more about Avia-Tak and your role there?
GLR: The company was started five years ago by an American and a French man. Both young entrepreneurs, they had a background in sales and procurement for Western aerospace companies doing business in China. At some point they realized that many of those companies didn’t know about the market they operated in. So they founded this management consulting firm. And it quickly grew. It’s based in Shanghai, but we have a presence in Hong Kong and Palm Beach, Florida.
Basically what we do is management consulting, business planning, market intelligence, and strategic advice for mergers and acquisitions. Our clients are big and small companies from China and around the world.
My role is to research specific questions or areas of the Chinese civilian aerospace market. We have databases, lists, and so on. We follow the news on the industry, or related sectors, new government policies, etc. We analyze all this and use it as part of our consulting engagements with our clients. So basically I’m a market analyst.
I work very closely with the co-founder. It’s a small firm, and really has the start-up feel. There is no precise schedule—you do the work you are expected to do, at any time during the week or weekend. So it’s usually around 60 to 70 hours a week. But I really enjoy it. It has a very entrepreneurial style: if you have an idea, you pitch it, and if the boss likes it then you manage it yourself. It’s really dynamic.
AI: Do you have any advice for students considering joining the MAPS program, or for MAPS students preparing to graduate and find a job?
GLR: I think you will get a lot out of MAPS if you take advantage of the resources available. It’s really up to the student; you have to participate. I also think it’s important for undergrads to pick a specialization early and stick with it. This not only tells the recruiter that you are knowledgeable about something, but also that you are able to do something consistently over a long period of time. I picked China and went back there year after year during undergrad studying Mandarin, travelling, and getting work experience on location.
When it comes to picking a research topic for your Master’s, if you’re not going to do a PhD, then I think you should consider concrete topics more than theoretical ones—think about how your topic could be valuable to a potential employer or industry. In our field, you have to create your own job, your own opportunities. The burden is on us to prove that we are as valuable as an economist or a business student. I truly believe that we are, even though I know that there are mixed perceptions of Arts degrees.
I got lucky, but I also created my own luck. If you take initiative by applying for a scholarship, writing emails to companies, going to conferences, and so on, then sooner or later something good will happen to you. And when you think you are going nowhere, the absolute worst thing to do is to stop and question your choices. Instead, just keep going forward.
AI: How long do you plan to stay in your current role, and what do you see yourself doing next?
GLR: For now I’m definitely staying here for a few years. I’m extremely happy to be here, my boss is very nice and I’m learning a lot from him and the company. There is a drawback in terms of living far away from my family (who by the way was also a great source of support during my MRP!). But you know, Shanghai is the biggest city in the world’s fastest growing major economy—what more can you ask for?
Prospective students interested in contacting Gaultier with questions can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.