Building resilience during a crisis: COVID-19 advice from the head of Ford China

Editor’s Note: This piece is the third in a series on how Chinese businesses large and small have responded to the coronavirus pandemic, and what the world can learn from them. The project is a collaboration between The GroundTruth Project, the Committee of 100 — a non-partisan leadership organization of prominent Chinese Americans — and leading management adviser Douglas K. Smith, also the co-founder of Table Stakes and the Media Transformation Challenge at Poynter.

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak brought China’s manufacturing to a halt, Anning Chen had his hands full. As the president and CEO of Ford China he was leading the company through a market-wide decline due to the effect of the trade war with the U.S., stricter emission standards and an industry wide transformation. At the end of 2019, his ambitious plan to reinvigorate the business was starting to show results. Then, the pandemic started.

With more than 28,000 employees in nine manufacturing plants and more than 1,100 dealers across the country, as well as its role providing parts for the global supply chain, Ford China is at the center of the discussion on how to cope with restrictions imposed by governments working attempting to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.  

We spoke with Chen to gain some insights into how he navigated the complex web of local, national and international regulations and logistical challenges to restore their operations and what lessons he can offer leaders that are in the middle of this crisis. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

GroundTruth: What were the first steps you took to address the crisis?

Anning Chen: The first measure we took was to secure a lot of masks at the time. This was before the masks became scarce. And for the last two months we have been running on a daily basis, what we call a crisis management model, a command and control mechanism established early to manage our people.

The first 10 days were all about our people. Their whereabouts, and making sure that they knew what to do, that they are protected. That includes our dealers. When the measures like (putting) cities in lockdown were taking place, we started to plan in terms of recovery, how we’re organized and how the resumption and recovery would be. So in the middle of February, we started to plan how people would come back and how we would work. [That includes] suppliers. Not only for us, but also suppliers to the global plants of Ford.

March was a lot about how to help the dealers and the demand, as the customers come back. Making sure we are the earliest ones to disinfect our dealerships, the service shops, showrooms and so forth. 

GT: What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced when you started up production? 

Chen: I think the first big challenge was the variance across regions. People subject to different rules. And, you know, the government here (China) manages very carefully every detail, person by person. We actually worked through our suppliers because we had to continue to supply our global production. So we had to work with different regional and city governments to make sure our suppliers are getting help and our dealers are getting help. 

So I think the dynamics across regions were a challenge and nobody was staffed to manage that. So we had basically a lot of people on there to help. The second thing I would say is helping our dealers, because they are sort of distributed across the country. [They] are small business owners, each financially and operationally in very different situations. In general, getting used to working with uncertainties and unknowns is the norm now. 

GT: What would be your advice for dealing with both local and national governments?

Chen: There are a lot of differences between countries, but I think there are some things that they have in common: The local government is more important than the national government in working through preparing for recovery. And I think local governments are always a lot more engaging, helpful and supportive. You should leverage that. 

In our experience, establishing a system of engagement is important. We have about [10 regional control centers] in China making sure we have systems covering all their needs (with the local authorities). And we have another three important centers in Shanghai, Hubei and the Chongqing area that are supplier bases. Although we don’t have direct bases there, we need to have a strong engagement system in those regions (to help suppliers).

Also, having a sustainable chain of command is important. […] We established this sort of command and control center in a place with a significant percentage of our leadership, staying together. That happened to be Taipei because Taipei at the time was safer. I was there as well. But even if you’re not able to have your leadership team physically in the same place, at least have a (remote) team working closely on a day to day basis. 

GT: What’s your advice for business owners in the U.S. and around the world that are in the same situation you were in early February?


  • First of all, remember that it is not easy to see through (the crisis). So always provide the confidence to your employees that at some point in time we, as human beings, will be able to manage this. It is difficult, especially when you’re isolated, but that confidence needs to come through.
  • Take the early warning signs seriously and act timely. This is probably more applicable for the regions that are just starting to see this. Organize and communicate clear command and control to your people. I think people need to know how you manage this, right? What measures are you taking? 
  • Help your people, but also help your people contribute. People always want to help, especially when they’re sitting at home working. They are seeing a lot of bad things happening out there. They want to find a way to help. So we organized several platforms, not only for them to donate, but also other ways to help the community in the fight against the virus. 
  • Treat your partners as if they were part of yourself. This is not just to be nice. When you do this you’re not only helping them, you’re also helping yourself. 
  • Be patient. In addition to being confident, also be patient. Depending on the situation, things may take more or less time, but they will happen.
  • Share what you do with everyone you can. We shared everything we do: Practices, models, guidelines, videos with our global organization. Not everything is applicable, but it may help others. Sharing is an important part of the job for Ford China, even today or moving forward because we’re a couple months ahead from everybody else. Even our failures help.