May 19, 2020|

The Best Testimony:JD’s Very First Employee Zhang Qi


by Vivian Yang

At its IPO celebration dinner in New York in 2014, JD’s founder and CEO Richard Liu gave his special thanks to three people: his early investor Cathy Xu, his CFO Sidney Huang, but first of all, he thanked Zhang Qi, his very first employee.

Zhang Qi joined JD in August, 2, 2000, exactly one month after his 16th  Birthday. At JD, people (including Liu) call him “Qi Ge (big brother Qi)” – even by colleagues older than him. As the very first employee in a company that today has over 220,000 employees globally, Zhang is absolutely a big brother in many people’s eyes. Turning 36 this year, he’s been with the company for 20 years. Now he is a director in charge of the company’s big sales and promotional events.

Zhang, who has an unassuming look and an honest face, has no desire to wear a “No.1 Employee” halo at work and always shies away from interviews. But just before JD’s “Employees Appreciation Day” on May 19th this year, we were able to get together with him and listen to his stories of early years.

Zhang Qi, in May 2020

Zhang Qi, in May 2020

1.Fleet of foot 

In 2000, Zhang Qi was introduced by his uncle to Richard Liu in the Zhongguancun electronics shopping market. People nowadays like to refer to Zhongguancun as China’s Silicon Valley, but in the early days the place was merely bustling buildings filled with small stalls, offices, storage centers, and hawkers selling electronic gadgets. At the time, Liu was one among the many, managing his small business called JD Multimedia, which gradually made its name by selling authentic products at reasonable and low prices. Through business, Zhang’s uncle met Liu and thought Liu was an honest and reliable man, so the uncle asked his nephew to work for Liu.

A quite green teenager from Fushun, an old industrial third-tier city of Liaoning province in northeast China, Zhang was excited to start a new life in Beijing. “It was August 2nd in 2000, my first working day at JD. I woke up way too early that day,” Zhang remembered vividly.  “It took me two hours by bus to the office and I showed up at the door at 6 AM. My boss(Liu) was even confused about why I was this early.”

Though the work was challenging, the competition was fierce, and the salary was minimal about 500 yuan or US$70 per month, Zhang didn’t complain and gave everything he had to prove his value in this ruthless market.

In the beginning, Zhang was tasked to deliver orders from storage to the seller’s counters. Speed was everything. Usually when customers arrived at the seller’s counter, they would call up three distribution agents at the same time and wait for them to send the products. The first agent who arrived would get the deal, and even got 10 yuan more per order. To win more deals, Zhang had to be fleet of foot – there’s no doubt that since day one, striving to deliver products to its customers in the fastest possible way is key to JD’s success. It’s in JD’s gene.

Zhang’s early struggle was no different from that of millions of couriers in China. Coming from unprivileged backgrounds, they firmly believe in and are willing to work hard to get a better life. Today the majority of JD’s couriers are from rural areas, and they give their all in work to serve the people. JD offered them an opportunity to grow and in turn they continuously create miracles for the company.

JD Multimedia counter in 1998

JD Multimedia counter in 1998

2. Quick learning on the job

After being a runner for a while, Liu asked Zhang to take charge of after-sales services which involved coordinating repairs between customers and the manufacturers. As sales rose, demand for repair and parts replacement also increased quickly. To ensure the customer experience, Liu constantly pressed Zhang to shorten the maintenance turnover time.

To spare himself from Liu’s nagging, Zhang decided to have a try at repairing the products himself. To start with, he sorted the damaged parts by problem types, and then tried to fix those problems he frequently encountered and only sent the rest to the manufactures for further handling. To his surprise, he was able to fix around 60%  on his own. The turnover time was greatly improved.

This is an example of how one’s potential can be released. Richard Liu believed that one’s ability to learn quickly on the job is more important than past experience. To coach his team in the early days, Liu would ask his employees to listen to his phone conversations with clients to learn communication skills. Nowadays, JD continues to invest heavily in training its talent in the hope of cultivating many more home-grown leaders for the future. In addition to its management trainee program and the JD University, a TED-style staff learning platform, over 60% of director-level and above managers can pursue MBA studies at top Chinese universities with fees covered by the company unconditionally. For many logistics staff who have a lower educational level, JD provides sufficient resources and rewards to encourage them to acquire higher diplomas that help them with their growth and development.

Zhang has been quite serious about continuing his education in recent years. After finishing his computer science major studies from a night school, he is now enrolled in the EMBA program offered by Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, as he hopes to deepen his understanding of JD’s business growth as well as broaden his global vision.

JD supports its frontline delivery men to further their studies on the job

JD supports its frontline delivery men to further their studies on the job

3. Do it now and do it right

“Place the document to sign on my table, B8 Zone A. Leave a note if copies are needed. For the urgent requests for original copies, please call xxx. ” This is the personal signature on Zhang Qi’s JD internal messenger — quite practical and efficient.

He learned to be organized and precise since the early days. Zhang recalled that Liu would often quiz him on the spot about the details of the products and prices on the market. A wrong answer would easily get his boss’ goat.

When asked what changed the most in JD over the years, Zhang thought it should be the fast-changing process of their warehouse upgrades. In the beginning, they just piled up all the products, CD players, burners, PC mainboards etc. in their 20-sqm or so office. After the SARS epidemic, the online business grew rapidly, they had to find an apartment in the neighborhood for storage. Since then, they found themselves moving storage locations and then seek larger and larger warehouses about every half year. Though it’s imaginable the frequent moving work was stressful, Zhang agreed with his boss that this is the most cost-effective way: “Liu had very high requirements for our inventory turnover and space utilization,“ he explained.

JD's warehouse skills contest in 2014

JD’s warehouse skills contest in 2014

4. To fight as a team

By 2005, online sales of JD had reached 1 million yuan. That year, Liu was offered 1.8 million yuan to sell his website and he nearly agreed. But when he discussed the offer with Zhang and Sun Jiaming, another veteran employee of JD, both were against the idea, seeing the company as their collective efforts where they anchor their life and dreams. In the end, Liu decided to carry on with JD.

Du Shuang, a diligent and capable woman, joined JD in 2008 and reported to Zhang at the beginning. She was later recommended by Zhang to several different positions where her abilities could be fully displayed. A few years later, because of her excellent performance, Du was promoted to the position as a vice president. Nevertheless, he worked with no reservations to help her manage the team well.

2010’s June 18 kick-off event

2010’s June 18 kick-off event

5. Brotherhood beyond a job

It’s a simple truth for managers that when you take care of your employees, they take care of the company. At JD given its bare-handed start, the concern for employees originated from a rather pure sense of brotherhood well before mature HR management came into the picture.

When Zhang and Sun shared a flat in the early days, Liu would drop by on the weekends and if he saw empty instant noodles boxes strewn across the table, he would chastise them for not minding their health and sanitation. Zhang met his wife at work who was from Suqian, the same hometown of Liu. Both being very humble and low-key, when they got married, the couple hosted a nice meal in Beijing, attended by Liu and other colleagues. Today they continue to lead a satisfying life with two kids. Most housework has to be handled by his wife as he still works with the same intensity he used to.

Zhang also took his boss’ example in taking care of his colleagues. According to Yao Yanzhong, who later became a senior supervisor at JD, not long after he joined, one day it was raining heavily but he needed to go out to arrange merchandise, Zhang said to him: “You stay in. I’m an older employee. I’ll go.” Even 10 years later, this incident deeply impresses Yao.

Understanding many colleagues’ housing difficulty, over dinner at one night, several old employees including Sun and Zhang proposed a way to help employees afford apartments. As a result, in 2012, JD launched interest-free loans and provided down payments for employees who wanted to buy a property of their own – program that still exists today and has benefitted many employees to date. In April 2020, the company just announced to extend the “housing plan” fund pool to RMB 1 billion for employees.  Eligible employees can receive as much as RMB 1 million in interest-free loans.

JD employee’s dormitory in Suqian, Liu’s hometown

JD employee’s dormitory in Suqian, Liu’s hometown

At the end of the casual conversion with Zhang, he made an unexpected apology for being too shy to share enough of his experiences and thoughts for the company and his fellow colleagues. What does it take to forge a loyal employee?  Is it measured by the length of one’s service time? In Zhang’s case, working for JD for two decades certainly makes a footnote.

Zhang’s path is impossible to be copied. In a fast-changing world, especially in the internet industry, job opportunities and personal choices are increasingly diversified, and employees who put in five years are typically considered to be long-serving employees. Even so, the strong passion and willingness to give one’s best to improve the company that Zhang demonstrated in his stories defines loyalty at another level.

Being there for 20 years, and counting, is the best testimony of loyalty.