By Bonnie Gelbwasser
The impact of the WPI Plan has extended far beyond the classroom for Hong Kong businessman Glen Yee. As one of the first students to enroll under the Plan, which was optional during its first few years, Yee learned discipline and important lessons about dealing with uncertainty and taking risks -- tools he used to move into uncharted territory in his life and career.
Yee was born in China and emigrated with his family to Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended high school. "I was stronger in math and the sciences because I had not entirely grown up in the United States and my English was not up to speed," he says. "I was interested in a small engineering school and was accepted by Rensselaer and Rose-Hulman. But I was struck by WPI. It was smaller than Rensselaer and I was always interested in New England. I thought it might be an exciting place to spend a few years."
Yee says he was attracted to the flexibility of the Plan, which seemed a welcome contrast to the rigidity of WPI's traditional program. "I knew that if I chose the Plan I would not have to take every required ME course. I wasn't even sure I liked mechanical engineering."
For his IQP, Yee, with two other students, worked with the research and development staff of American Optical to determine how best to fit lenses into eyeglass frames. "Our objective was to design a measuring method that could be digitized for computer input," he says. "We did devise a fairly scientific way of measuring how the many three-dimensional curves in the lenses fit into frames."
His MQP focused on fiberglass-reinforced materials. "There were few publications and less than a handful of books on the topic," he recalls. "WPI had a machine shop and we got help to do some of the molds. We tried to quantitatively analyze the physical performance of different materials and orientations of the fiber-reinforcing material and their possible applications. The boundaries of these projects were often not clear. They served as lessons in dealing with uncertainty. We also learned to work with other people and to push each other to achieve the desired results. The Plan gives you the chance to develop people skills early on."
After he completed his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering, Yee joined GE's Technical Marketing Program and completed four assignments in four locations. Toward the end of this period, he became interested in the business and commercial side of engineering. He left GE to attend Columbia University, where he completed his M.B.A.
In 1976 he married the former Amy Lee, a Hong Kong student he met during his senior year while she was attending Simmons College in Boston. In 1977 he joined Continental Can Co. in Stamford, Conn., as a corporate finance analyst in international finance at the company's headquarters. He remained in the U.S. for approximately two years until the company opened an Asian Pacific Office in Hong Kong.
"I was fortunate enough to be promoted to regional finance manager," he says. "I was happy to return to Hong Kong, where I had relatives and where Amy's family was." The Yees now have two sons, Nicholas, 17, and Curtis, 15, who attend boarding schools in Connecticut.
"In Hong Kong, I was responsible for financial evaluations of various joint ventures and acquisitions in the region," he says. "By 1984, Continental Can successfully established several operations and I was appointed commercial director for Continental Can Hong Kong Ltd. In 1986 I was promoted to deputy managing director, responsible for business development in China; three years later I was named managing director."
In 1992 Yee left Continental Can to form his own start-up company, Pacific Can Co. "The average American consumes 400 cans of beverages per year," he says. "In Hong Kong, that number is 130. I saw an opportunity to develop the beverage can market in China, where rapid growth was certain to raise the current annual consumption rate of four cans per person. We specialize in aluminum soda cans. There are four major beverage companies in China: Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Jianlibao, a famous Chinese orange soda, and the internationally known Tsingtao Beer. Several other local companies are all trying to develop a position in China.
"In 1993, Continental Can Europe Inc. invested in Pacific Can and became our strategic partner. As CEO of my own company, I have the opportunity to develop new markets and grow with the Chinese beverage market. This more entrepreneurial position is a natural extension of my professional career. Today, Pacific Can operates five joint-venture plants and is one of the four multinationally linked major can manufacturers in China."
Yee says the skills he gained through the Plan have helped him build his successful career in Hong Kong. "The Plan required that I 'think outside of the box' quite often," he says. "Because of that, I feel I'm better equipped to deal with flexibility, uncertainty and nebulousness. My project experience made me comfortable with uncertainty and gave me courage to take up challenges. That has helped me a great deal since graduation."
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