Q&A with Xiaonanzhang

You are the Sales and Development Manager for TQC, based out of Shanghai. Could tell us how you started in that role?

In 2010 I went to the University of Oslo to study for my master’s. My major was Higher Education, which was a research-oriented major focusing on states’ higher education policymaking, university management, and developing university curriculums, which had nothing to do with either minerals or business.

At that time TQC was called Norwegian Crystallites. In 2011, a Chinese couple who had a crucible factory and wanted to buy sand traveled to Oslo to meet with our then-CEO, Svein Olerud. They didn’t speak very good English, so they wanted to find a local Chinese student who could be their interpreter for two days to accompany them from the Oslo airport to Drag. They asked around among friends and Chinese students in Oslo, and I was known for speaking good English. I got the two-day job and accompanied them to Drag, where I met Svein, our then- R&D director Kari Moen, and Robert Kvamme [current Technical Director].

After the job, Svein told me he would like to hire me to be his assistant part-time. But back then I still wanted to pursue a PhD in education after my master’s degree. In 2011 I went on my first trip to China with Svein, the COO John Walker, and CFO Lasse Iversen, and I fell in love with the job. My personality is very extroverted. I like to meet people, which is also why I gave up my bachelor major in computer science. I really enjoyed the trip, and it was also on the trip that John explained to me what an Si-based solar cell is and the growing trajectory of the solar industry. I was very drawn to the industry and that was when I decided I would continue. So after I finished my master’s degree, I immediately went full-time.

“I find making quartz and all the technical aspects to this job fascinating. Every day I’m learning something new.”

I was lucky to get this opportunity because of my English language skills, to which I thank my experience of being a Mandarin teacher for three years in Shanghai before I went to University of Oslo. Those three years I worked almost seven days a week, 8am to 10pm almost every day, and got paid so little that I couldn’t afford to rent a place and slept on the office floor for months. But I saw it as a precious training experience that money couldn’t buy – speaking English and dealing with people from all over the world with different professional backgrounds and personalities. I wouldn’t have impressed Svein and Kari if it wasn’t for those years of training, and the experience of dealing with different people has also helped my work with customers, I believe.

Water fun in Shanghai

To pivot from higher education to a job in in a minerals company is definitely a change! What was your first role in TQC at that time?

I was the assistant to the CEO. I was mainly translating contracts into Chinese and answering phone calls from Chinese customers. I had to explain the tough situation we were in back then, when we didn’t have enough sand to sell them, but that we hoped to be able to work with them in the long run. It was a bit of customer relationship maintenance and translation.

It sounds like it was a natural starting off point to work on the customer relations side. How did you transition over into a sales role?

It isn’t like other sales roles because it’s very technical. Selling this product is almost completely up to how cost effective it is, unlike many consumer products where you try to persuade consumers to upgrade or buy more of a product due to social conditioning rather than straight need. You need to have a thorough understanding of the technical aspects of the product and have the communication skills to explain the technical aspects very clearly. Once you are able to convey the technical competitiveness to the customer, they will be willing to try your product, and then the product and price will speak for themselves. Communication skills are also important because the customers need someone who is interested in and able to understand their problems and communicate them to TQC’s quality engineers on their behalf better than they could themselves.

“In this way I build close relationships with customers, so they trust me and hence trust TQC”

In this way I build close relationships with the customers, so they trust me and hence trust TQC. And even ifthere are problems in the product, they know that you will always be as straightforward as possible with them.They understand quality issues are normal in any product because they are manufacturers themselves. The more dangerous thing here is not quality problems, but a supplier that refuses to, or doesn’t have the adequate staff, to listen.  

My favorite subjects were always physics and science, so I find making quartz and all the technical aspects to this job fascinating. Every day I’m learning something new — what is causing bubbles, what are we doing to remove the impurities, etc. And these things make every day a little bit different, like solving a puzzle or overcoming a new problem.

It sounds like you are an important conduit of information from the customer back to the quality team or the production team. How often do you find yourself giving information that direction so that the products can be improved?

I think it’s almost every day. Especially before this year. Historically TQC’s product has had a market stigma for having more bubbles than the competitor product, but last year we made some important steps to improve this perception. So every day there are customers that want to discuss something, which means that every day I’m talking to the quality departments in Norway and the U.S.

Are the customers sometimes able to provide useful insights into the nature of a problem?

Yes, they try to analyze it and help me with their understanding of a problem. Because they rely on me to talk for them to TQC they need to provide me with relevant information. So I have direct contact with all the technical and production people at all our customers.

You recently visited an ingot pulling plant. How often do you go on these kinds of trips? And can you talk about some of your first- hand experiences visiting our customers and being on-site with them?

I visit our direct customers maybe every other month on average. This particular trip was actually very rare since it was our customer’s customer. Our customers don’t pull ingots. Our customers make the quartz pot, which we call a crucible, and then the pulling company puts silicon metal into the quartz pot and then grows an ingot out of that.

In the past the pulling companies, which are not our direct customers, have not always been interested in spending time with me. But this year is special because the whole market is feeling a shortage of quartz sand. Now the pulling companies are willing to talk to me directly to show how important they are and hence how we should prioritize their crucible suppliers and sell enough sand to them. That’s how I had this very rare chance to bring my key team members, Jessica Nie and Kevin Ge, to visit a plant like this and learn from inside the plant.

Market forces being what they are right now are allowing us to expand our opportunities for more insight and knowledge. How do you experience this high demand for our product?

In fact there is not a real shortage, it is just very balanced rather than being strongly over-capacity. But since many downstream companies are looking to expand their production, they are naturally more interested in ensuring that there will be enough to allow them to make their expansions – and to ultimately gain market share.

We all know that things happen very quickly in China: that they’re able to go from a planning stage to a building stage to a production stage very quickly. What are your insights with regards to this increasing focus on speed and quantity?

Solar is an industry that is not the most advanced technically, and China is doing well in areas that aren’t the most advanced. China still can’t compete globally when it comes to the most high-end semiconductor products, like chips for computers and phones, since it requires a strict focus on consistency and many decades of accumulation of experience.

One example is the 5G network that China wants to develop. But because the U.S. stopped selling the most advanced chips to China, this whole project is hugely hindered. According to market reports and the media, there is now a big overcapacity in optical fiber simply because there are not enough chips to fulfil the expected demand for 5G equipment. They built all this capacity to get ready for it, but then there are none of the advanced chips to make it happen, and China is not able to make it by ourselves. This is both a future opportunity and a current risk!

Can you talk about the difference between the ingots that go towards the semiconductor market versus the solar market?

There are companies that only make solar ingots and companies that only make semiconductor ingots. Normally they don’t overlap because although the technology itself looks the same from a distance, they require a completely different attention to detail to make them. For example, polysilicon metal, the raw material they use in solar, is only maybe six nines, so 99.9999% pure, while in semiconductors it is 10 to 12 nines. So the cost associated with semiconductors is also much higher.

For example, a solar pulling factory can run pretty much from a construction site. But a semiconductor factory must be a clean room where not only dust per cubic meter is controlled, but also moisture levels and temperature. It’s very consistent, but in solar it’s up and down. Worst case it generates a little bit less electricity. But with semiconductor chips, if a computer or car malfunctions, people could die.

I would be remiss if I talked about the previous year without mentioning COVID. How has it affected our business and the market in China?

In the beginning of 2020, we had a little bit of a slowdown due to the COVID situation, but then it went completely in the opposite direction when the solar and semiconductor markets took off. Many governments wanted to boost their economies through infrastructure, so Chinese, U.S., and European governments issued policies to encourage solar panel installations. And working from home, together with many other factors, created this huge demand for semiconductor chips. So after the first two or three months, business has only been good.

You head up our China office, located in Shanghai, where you just added a 6th team member. How is it maintaining connections in an office that is so physically removed from the rest of TQC, and more generally what is it like being part of the TQC Shanghai office?

Actually, I lived in Oslo and Kristiansand in Norway from 2011 to 2016. And then I was sent to the Shanghai office in 2016. These past five years in Shanghai have made me enjoy my work a lot more. My job was more difficult when I was in living in Norway. I had a seven-hour time difference to my customers, so it was not enough time to talk to them and not easy to meet them either. Once I moved here, they could call me all day long. And I can call them all day long. And Shanghai is easy to travel to, so now I get customer visits two or three times a week. Being a lot closer to customers makes communication and the technical information exchange a lot easier.

As a sales team we are not very involved in quality and production, so it is not too big a problem that we’re so far away from Spruce Pine or Drag. I personally have the most communication with these departments, along with my boss in Cornwall, so I do have some evening calls. But my logistics and customer service teams deal with our Chinese suppliers and customers, so the advantage of being in China is way bigger than the disadvantage.

TQC-sponsored crucible conference

What else can you share about the work the Shanghai office does?

One of our sales team members, Kevin, is not located in Shanghai but in a city called Donghai. It used to be the center of quartz in China because they had huge crystal and quartz mines. But the people of Donghai mined those high-quality crystals to use them as industrial quartz, which was a big shame for the jewelry industry!

Kevin has a lot of experience, and he can get market information that I or Benny could never get simply because of how deep he is in the quartz industry in China. He used to be the Vice GM for Pacific Quartz, which is the biggest quartz company in China. He worked there for seven years, and now Pacific Quartz is both our customer and our competitor because Pacific Quartz also sells a lot of quartz sand for making crucibles. So having Kevin there is a lot more useful than having him in Shanghai.

Hosting the Imerys banquet
Color run in Shanghai

On a more personal note, what was it like for you to move from a city like Kristiansand to Shanghai?

I grew up in Xinxiang City, Henan Province, a city of 6 million. I also lived in Shanghai for 3 years before I moved to Norway, so I was most used to big cities with lots of things going on, and hence wasn’t very used to the life in Kristiansand. We have been much happier since moving to Shanghai.

I have colleagues I meet every day in Shanghai which I didn’t have in Norway. I’m also much closer to my customers and get to interact with them more. It’s a city of over 30 million people so there is so much more going on. It is a million times better than working alone from Kristiansand because it’s a lot easier to discuss issues face-to-face with customers, share burdens at work together, and find pleasure in achievements together.

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