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Philip Morris seat for Baidu finance chief

By Kathrin Hille in Beijing

Published: April 1 2010 12:52 | Last updated: April 1 2010 12:52

Philip Morris has picked Jennifer Li, chief financial officer of Baidu, the Chinese online search company, to join its board as an independent director – the fourth Chinese executive chosen to serve as a director for an S&P 500 company and the first woman from the country.

Her appointment reflects the rise of a new generation of Chinese management talent that brings the country’s corporate sector closer to international peers.


Baidu beats profits estimates – Feb-10.Philip Morris in tie-up with Filipino tycoon – Feb-25.Ruling on Baidu a blow to record groups – Jan-28.FT top 50 women in world business – Sep-25..Ms Li has an MBA from the University of British Columbia and a bachelor of arts degree from Tsinghua University, China’s leading school for science and engineering.

Before joining Baidu two years ago, she spent 14 years at General Motors in various finance positions based in China, Singapore, the US and Canada. This included work as chief financial officer of GM in China and a position as controller at GMAC, formerly the financial services arm of GM.

“I hope to learn new perspectives and best practices that I can apply and contribute to Baidu’s long-term growth and to the Chinese business community,” said Ms Li.

For Philip Morris, picking a Chinese board member expresses the company’s hopes for a huge market in which it remains a tiny player. China accounts for 40 per cent of the world tobacco market excluding the US. The company, which owns seven of the world’s 15 best-selling cigarette brands, is so far only present through an agreement with China National Tobacco Corporation under which the state monopoly manufactures and sells Marlboro cigarettes locally. The two also have a joint venture for the international sale of Chinese cigarettes.

Philip Morris hoped the new board member could act as a “bridge” to China in contributing her understanding of this market, said Ian Butcher of MWM Consulting, the executive search firm that helped find her.

But Ms Li, 41, would not be expected to play a lobbying role for the company in the world’s biggest tobacco market, Mr Butcher said.

Ms Li said she did not expect her role to be China-specific but thought she could contribute from her cross-cultural background and experience in different industries.

Over the past 20 years, S&P 500 companies have appointed 15 Indians to their boards but only four Chinese, three of them in the past four years.

Executive search experts point to more mature legal and corporate governance standards and stronger English-language skills in India as the main reasons for the gap.

The first Chinese to join an S&P 500 company board was David S. Lee, a China-born entrepreneur who spent most of his adult life in the US. He was appointed as an independent director for Linear Technology, an electronics company, in 1988.

In 2006, Mastercard invited Edward Suning Tian, a US-educated entrepreneur who is also the founder of AsiaInfo, a telecoms supplier, to its board. Last year, Liu Jiren, founder and chairman of Neusoft, one of China’s leading software makers, became an independent director for Harman International, the audio equipment maker.

Mr Butcher described the likes of Mr Tian, Mr Liu and Ms Li as part of a new generation in China’s corporate world. “They are not Communist party representatives but foreign-educated managers with solid financial skills and a capability to communicate internationally.”

“I do expect to see more and more Chinese executives contributing to the global corporate world as China becomes increasingly important in the world economy and as the number of Chinese professionals with experience in both developed and emerging markets continues to grow,” Ms Li said.

The appointment is subject to approval by shareholders at Philip Morris’ annual general meeting on May 12.

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