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To sell PCs, he hits the sky

As an American running the biggest computer company operating in China, Bill Amelio faces a few challenges. In the next year, the CEO of Lenovo Group Ltd. aims to boost the company's brand in the United States and break into key emerging markets.

Less than a year ago, Amelio left his job as head of Dell Inc.'s Asia operations to take the top job at Lenovo, which had emerged as the world's third-largest computer company after buying International Business Machines Corp.'s personal computer division for $1.25-billion in 2004.

During a recent stop in Hong Kong, the 48-year-old CEO talked about managing across cultures and competition with Dell, among other challenges. Excerpts:

Do you still consider Lenovo a Chinese company?

We're a global company. We actually rotate the headquarters between Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore, Raleigh (N.C.) and Paris. Instead of having everyone travel to me, I travel to them. I feel like a gypsy at times, running around with my bag, unloading it and loading it.

What kind of cultural issues come up between the American and Chinese sides of the company?

Every day there's something. On both sides, you need to have great trust in your colleagues to know that their intentions are good, even though the words might not come out right.

In the U.S. and Europe, we have highly opinionated executives who like to make their voices heard. The China team tends to listen more and express themselves more thoughtfully.

This year, the U.S. State Department said it wouldn't use Lenovo computers for classified work after members of Congress raised concerns about the fact that the Chinese government owns 27 percent of the company. Was the concern legitimate?

There is no risk to the U.S. government in using Lenovo products. Period. Full stop. There are no backdoor surveillance activities or spy chips or any of the like associated with any of our computers.

How do Lenovo's marketing strategies differ around the world?

In India, we work with Bollywood actors and do key product placements on game shows. Outside of the U.S., soccer is very popular, so we hired (Brazilian soccer star) Ronaldinho to do ads for us. In the U.S., we're working with the NBA. Another way is through the Olympics, which have broad appeal around the world. We're doing some interesting stuff with blogs, too - check out the Design Matters blog on Lenovoblogs.com.

What is in store for the next generation of Lenovo/IBM ThinkPads?

Fingerprint-swipe readers. If you have 30 different passwords, they're all stored on your fingerprint, and you don't have to remember them all.

We like to take ideas from other industries and apply them to our computers. Take the roll cage around cars that protects people when they get in an accident. We've put a roll cage around the LCD screen in a ThinkPad, so if you drop the computer, you might not break the glass.

We also took the air-bag idea and applied it to our hard drive. The ThinkPad has a sensor that knows if it's falling, protects the data on the hard drive. We've used the same algorithm that controls air bag deployment in a car.

Last quarter, you lost market share in the United States. What is your strategy going forward?

The issue in the American market is that, historically, we've played in the large-account space. That market shrunk this past quarter, creating a lot of aggressive pricing. Our problem is that we haven't been in the transaction space, targeting small and medium businesses and consumers. As we gear up that part of our business, you'll see us gain share.

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