Many CEOs call their employees associates; others call them partners. Zhang calls all 73,000 of them entrepreneurs—and actually means it. It’s one sign of how Zhang is changing his company, the world’s No. 1 appliance maker, and in the process reconceiving the large business organization more profoundly than anyone else on the planet.
He’s winning in part by expanding through acquisition; in 2016 he bought General Electric’s appliance business for $5.4 billion. More fundamentally, Zhang sees a future that most CEOs don’t. “Competitions in the Internet era are not between companies but between platforms,” he tells Fortune. At Haier, teams of people who may not be Haier employees come together for projects and then disperse. A product can also be a platform for multiple companies. One example: For a networked “smart” oven project, companies that might sell food via the device could pay to be partners, enabling Haier to reduce appliance prices.
Haier consists of some 3,000 company-funded entrepreneurial micro-enterprises that live or die by their individual success, plus a few hundred teams funded partly by outside investment. “If a startup team cannot attract any venture capital, they can either consider how to progress and strive harder or they will be dismissed,” Zhang explains.
So how do you turn thousands of corporate employees into entrepreneurs? Wrong question. “The task is not to turn Haier’s internal staff into entrepreneurs, but rather to attract all the entrepreneurs in society onto our platform,” Zhang says.