CEO of Trip.com Group, Jane Jie Sun, explains how progressive policies and leading by example have aided immense growth in a time of stagnation.
Much has been written about the rise of China, especially when it comes to business. Although luminaries like Ma Huateng and Lei Jun have enjoyed plenty of attention, Jane Jie Sun is arguably less famous. This is unfortunate.
As a rare woman tech CEO, Sun has made Trip.com Group into one of the biggest online travel firms around – even as she promotes remarkably progressive internal policies. Andrea Valentino chats to Sun to understand how her early career in America prepared her for her current role, how she faced the struggles of the pandemic head on, and why she thinks travel can offer deep insights wherever you end up.
I’ve barely finished my hellos and Jane Jie Sun is already fizzing with purpose. She complains about the ban on Chinese tourists to the US, arguing the government needs to ease up restrictions. She quizzes me on my past trips to China, then invites me to visit.
She waxes enthusiastically about how fast her country is changing, how Shanghai felt like a “totally new city” every time she returned from her old job in America. Sun does all this before I’ve asked my first question. Then she keeps it up for the next half an hour, quoting Confucius, musing on the female body clock, reflecting on the ethical benefits of touring refugee camps.
The pace, in short, is frantic. But given what Sun represents, it also feels thoroughly appropriate. A CEO in the coming superpower of our century, a country that’s predicted to become the world’s economic engine by 2028, neither China nor Sun have time to spare.
This is true in her own career too. The head of the Trip.com Group since 2016, Sun has turned the Shanghai travel firm into a $30bn enterprise, recently selling another $1.1bn shares as if they were nothing. All the while, Sun has lifted her sights beyond her native land, snapping up rivals from Scotland to India, all while finding time to invest in an airline and run half marathons on the weekend.
If anything, this energy has proved doubly useful over the last year. Every CEO has been squeezed by the pandemic. But for a company built on open borders, lockdowns and travel bans could have been fatal.
Yet here again, Sun has shown her worth, partnering with customers and businesses to emerge stronger than before. And while Beijing has recently begun to have second thoughts about firms like hers – liberal, globalised, essentially capitalist – Sun seems sure-footed enough to guide her 45,000 employees through the crags and troughs of contemporary China.
One day soon, in fact, it may be firms like Trip that teach the tech world about keeping workers happy and regulators at bay.
Rise and shine
Over the past two decades, Chinese business has exploded. In 2000, just ten of the country’s firms were members of Fortune 500. Last year that number had jumped to 124 – more than the US. Many of these companies, like Weibo and Tencent, are rapidly becoming household names in China and beyond.
Countless others, encompassing everything from electric vehicles to rare earth metals, seem set to become economic titans all their own. And though it’s yet to scale the peaks of an Airbnb, Trip’s own journey is similarly impressive. Consider the numbers.
In the 15 years since it went public, in 2003, the online travel firm’s market cap increased 30 times over. In 2018, revenue was 18% up on the year before. Even last year, Trip finished strongly, posting third-quarter profits 73% up from the previous cycle.
Jane Jie Sun’s own rise has been similarly brisk. Joining as CFO in 2005 – when it was still known as Ctrip – she was promoted to Trip.com’s COO in 2012. Four years later, Sun was appointed CEO, succeeding co-founder James Liang. Yet in her telling, these later triumphs would have been far tougher without robust training abroad.
As a student at the University of Florida, then an auditor in California, Sun suggests she’s adept at working on both sides of the Pacific. “I understand how Wall Street works, how Silicon Valley works,” she says. “I also have a very strong background in China. I understand both, and that’s the whole purpose for me – to really become a good bridge between China and the rest of the world.”
Certainly, this cosmopolitan attitude could explain Trip’s vigorous acquisition of foreign rivals. The same month Sun became CEO, in November 2016, her company scooped up the Edinburgh-based Skyscanner. That was followed by Trip.com – hence the name change from Ctrip – and Indian travel retailer MakeMyTrip.
Nor did Sun’s enthusiasm dampen during last year’s emergency. In April 2020, Trip acquired Vayama and Vliegwinkel, among other Dutch brands. That’s shadowed by investments in other corners of the travel industry.
In 2018, for instance, the Chinese giant launched TrainPal, an online ticketing platform in the UK. All told, Trip.com Group is now one of the most powerful travel brands around, comfortably the biggest non-US player, and just ahead of Expedia with a market cap of $20bn.
This growth would likely be impossible outside the Middle Kingdom. Domestically, Chinese tourists took six billion trips in 2019, with the country’s travel industry contributing a full 11% of GDP.
That’s echoed by the Chinese abroad. A bulging middle class means hundreds of millions can now spend their yuan overseas. China’s monied elite are flexing their muscles too. To explain what she means, Sun describes a new luxury tour offered by Trip. Sweeping passengers around the world, and costing around $200,000
per person, the CEO asks me to guess how quickly tickets sold out.
I suggested a couple of hours. In fact, they went in just 17 seconds. No wonder Sun feels comfortable quoting Confucious. As the old sage said, Sun recalls, “it’s better to travel 10,000 miles than to read 10,000 books”.
Fun child policy
In January 2020, China was preparing to celebrate its new year. This should have been an auspicious time, and not just because years of the rat are traditionally associated with wealth and prosperity. Between family reunions and weekend getaways, people here normally take over 3bn trips over the festive period.
As China’s biggest travel company, Trip should have been perfectly placed to watch its profits soar. It soon became clear, however, that this year of the rat would be different. From the wet markets to the overflowing hospitals to the lockdowns, 2020 would be a disaster for the global economy, with travel firms like Trip left especially vulnerable.
In short, everything Trip had achieved over the past decade could have been wiped away by the pandemic and its wake. That it wasn’t is largely down to the rugged determination of its CEO.
As Sun explains, the dangers of the pandemic spurred her into action, ultimately leading to a three-pronged plan to beat the pandemic. Sun’s first priority, she says, were her customers. “Immediately, we promised our customers that we would give them their refund back,” she recalls. “On any given day, I remember Sunday, we would refund ¥5bn, ¥6bn to our customers.”
That’s around $775m, even as it remained unclear if airlines and hotels would do their part and refund Trip after Sun’s colossal act of generosity. Unsurprisingly, the CEO describes those first, frantic days as “very stressful” – though she ultimately emphasises it was the “right thing to do”.
Altogether, Trip.com returned around ¥350bn ($54bn) to beleaguered travellers. With those kinds of figures floating about, at any rate, the next stage of Sun’s plan feels almost miserly in comparison.
Eager to support partners elsewhere in the industry, Trip organised a ¥1bn fund to help small and medium-sized firms, and worked with banks to inject ¥10bn into travel at large. The third pillar of Trip’s recovery plan, for its part, looked inwards. Eager to keep her company balanced in rough economic waters, Sun offered to work for free until the industry recovered, while staff took pay cuts or limited their time in the office.
Sun emphasises that this last scheme – showing that executives like her were willing to make sacrifices for the greater good – helped Trip “retain talent in this very difficult time”. This thoughtful approach to leadership, in fact, is typical of how Sun runs her firm more broadly.
As a female CEO in an industry dominated by men, Sun is obviously conscious of the need to “empower” the women leaders of tomorrow. That arguably begins before they’re even born. When a Trip employee becomes pregnant, they’re offered free taxi rides into the office. When their baby is born, they’re given a bonus.
This support even extends to getting pregnant, something Sun explains comes from personal experience. “When I had my first baby, I was below 35, so it was a regular pregnancy,” she says. “For my second baby, I was 36 when I gave birth. So I was classified as a high-risk pregnancy.”
In other words, Sun continues, women have a unique biological clock – one that men crucially lack. With that in mind, Sun has developed a remarkably progressive system for women looking to build a family, paying staff to freeze their eggs.
Apart from being unique in the tech industry, this approach has helped Trip.com become one of the most equal workplaces in China or indeed anywhere else. Around a third of Trip executives are women, a figure that rises to over 40% among middle managers and 50% at the company overall.
“This number is outstanding,” Sun says, especially if you compare Trip to the industry at large. Fair enough: according to one recent study, just 28.8% of American tech workers are women, a figure that drops to less than 10% among executives.
Visible with space
During the height of the pandemic, when travel bans were still the order of the day, Trip.com made a surprising announcement: it was investing in an airline. Known as Sanya International Airlines, it’s due to be based out of Hainan, an island to the south of the Chinese mainland.
Amid plans to turn Hainan into a free-trade hub, Sanya could yet be another feather in Sun’s bonnet. And even if it fails, it’s clearly testament to Trip’s continued zeal after the pandemic.
Beyond the ultimate success of the project – which still needs to be officially approved – it’s also useful for examining the current state of Chinese business more generally. Trip, after all, isn’t developing the airline alone. Rather, it’s teaming up with Hainan Province Transport Investment Holding, a state-owned body run by the local provincial government.
This partnership isn’t particularly unusual. For years, Chinese officials have played a central role in the development of Chinese business, sometimes supporting, often cajoling, always with a hand hovering over the levers of corporate power. That’s especially true over the past few months, with President Xi Jinping announcing measures to regulate the economy and cut inequality.
These changes are already being felt: e-commerce giant Alibaba recently accepted a $2.8bn fine for abusing its market position. Of course, there’s no reason to think that Trip.com is in a similar boat.
But it’s still worth asking: how does the CEO of such a cosmopolitan enterprise feel about doing business from Shanghai? Sun, for her part, is sanguine. She praises Beijing for creating a “transparent and fair” business environment, adding that it’s similar to moves regulating big tech in Europe and the US.
That’s a reasonable point, even if Mark Zuckerberg is unlikely to mysteriously disappear for months on end, as recently befell Alibaba chairman Jack Ma after he made a speech attacking government regulators.
“We care about young people, for their good education. We care about the college students, for them to develop good career paths. We care about families, for them to have peaceful and prosperous lives. I think this is not a European Dream, an American Dream or a Chinese Dream. It’s a dream for human beings.”
At any rate, it seems clear that Sun is comfortable pitching her tent in the economic and political ferment of modern China. It might help that – work ethic and ambition aside – the CEO still finds space for herself. Despite getting into the office around 7am, and then staying up late to field calls from Europe and the US, she makes a point of running half marathons on the weekend – “just to make sure my energy level is there”.
As the leader at a global travel company, meanwhile, Sun also ensures she actually sees the places advertised on her websites. “I’m very passionate to use travel as a bridge between China and the rest of the world,” she emphasises, explaining she takes her two children to see African villages and refugee camps in the Middle East.
“No matter if you go to a very rich country or poor country, I feel people are very similar,” Sun adds. “We care about young people, for their good education. We care about the college students, for them to develop good career paths. We care about families, for them to have peaceful and prosperous lives. I think this is not a European Dream, an American Dream or a Chinese Dream. It’s a dream for human beings.” A nice sentiment – and probably a reassuring one as China builds our century in its image.