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So WHY does Huawei's enigmatic boss shun the West's spotlight?

Ren Zhangfei's secret revealed by man who should know

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The elusive chairman and founder of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei shies away from publicity – not because his past is marred by controversy, but rather because he doesn't want to become the next Steve Jobs or Steve Ballmer: a celebrity, of sorts, taking the focus away from the multinational's work.

That, at least, is the view of Merrill Lynch veteran Kevan Watts, who is a man with a diverse portfolio: he serves as a non-executive director of a British football team, is vice-chairman of global banking at HSBC and sits on the International Advisory Council of Huawei.

It means, significantly, that Watts has the ear of Huawei supremo Ren Zhengfei.

One of the issues that has repeatedly dogged Huawei is the allegation that the telecoms hardware maker has secretive links to China's Communist government. Some of those claims stem from Ren's time in the People's Liberation Army. And, in the US especially, the rumours are proving extremely difficult to shake off: officials fear backdoors may have been left in, which ironically is exactly what American spooks and tech companies are accused of doing.

Huawei is trying really hard to grow its business outside of China in an effort to compete with its arch rival, Sweden-based Ericsson.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Huawei established its first research and development centre outside of the People's Republic in Ericsson's backyard: Stockholm. Huawei arrived there in 2000.

Now that Ren's company has become a recognised technology brand, Huawei is trying to sell the message to would-be customers in Europe that it is an outward-looking business, even as many doors remain firmly locked in the US. Concerns about national security are regularly used as the justification for stonewalling the Shenzhen-based firm.

During the privately held corporation's first European media day, held in Stockholm, Watts told reporters that recent reform in China had led to a desire for fewer state-owned enterprises. He was keen to stress that “Huawei, of course, is not a state-owned enterprise”.

He added that it was frustrating for the company to still be viewed as a “Chinese multinational”, when it wants to be seen as a global technology leader.

Huawei's desire, Watts explained, is to “be seen as part of Europe”, while at the same time fully expecting its frosty relationship with the US to continue - a point that makes it hard to sell the idea that it can be truly global with what remains a tiny stateside presence.

He said that the US is very sensitive to foreign investment, particularly from China.

It explains why winning over the hearts and minds of Europeans, some of whom remain suspicious of Huawei's motivations, has become a key part of the company's strategy.

It's been argued before that providing better access to Ren could be one of the ways Huawei might overcome some of the mistrust that haunts the company.

But according to Watts, Ren is not interested in the cult of celebrity. He does not want to be the public face of Huawei in the same way that, say, Steve Jobs was so closely tied to Apple.

Instead, Huawei's boss simply focusses on the business. He uses Chinese proverbs that Watts said “are very evocative and accurate” when discussing future issues that affect the company.

He sees his most important contribution as leading the business,” Watts told The Register. “He does not want to be a politician, he does not want to become a media celebrity about business, about political challenges of running a business, he wants to get on with leading Huawei.”

Watts said that leaders of companies in China like to keep a low-profile and steer clear of politics in the country. And that faceless approach extends across Huawei's business.

Huawei has a rota of three men who take turns serving as CEO at the tech giant on a six month basis. It means, sometimes, that Ren doesn't always recall which chief was responsible for which decisions. Watts used a short anecdote about one such exchange with the company's chairman, in which Ren simply replied: “It was the one that was in the office that month.”

Watts couldn't resist drawing an analogy with the football team Tottenham Hotspur, whose board he sits on, by saying that there were big business risks associated with focussing on one individual. He said:

“[It's] not unlike the business risk that Tottenham Hotspur had with Gareth Bale. We were able to add seven international footballers to our squad when Bale went to Real Madrid.”

The question now, in success terms, is: does Huawei want to be Tottenham Hotspur or a truly global brand like Read Madrid? The answer may be beyond Europe after all. ®

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