Mike Dunne Detail Image

American Wheels, Chinese Roads

January 24, 2012 | by Dan Shine

For years, Michael Dunne thought he’d study French, but when a professor encouraged him to switch to Chinese, he found his passion.

Like many first-year students, Dunne entered Michigan in 1981 with no real career path, but figured he would “show up and find my way.”

By his junior year, he was pretty sure he had found it. He was a French Language and Literature major spending the academic year in France. But while sipping espresso in a sidewalk café along the famed Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence, Dunne’s professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques said something that would change his life.

“He told me that the most important development in my lifetime would be China,” Dunne recalls. “He recommended I study the [Chinese] language along with my French.”

Dunne returned to Ann Arbor for his senior year and enrolled in Chinese 101, taught by Tao Laoshi, and Modern Chinese Politics with Michel Oksenberg.

“I didn’t think it would lead to much,” Dunne says.

Au contraire. It would lead Dunne to a “total change of direction.”

“I found it electric, I found it fascinating,” he says of studying Chinese. “I was graduating soon and I felt completely taken by the energy and possibilities that a just-opening China presented.”

He says he started eating Chinese food and hanging out with international students. When his father would show up on a Saturday night and ask if he wanted to go get a beer, Dunne would wave him off and say he wanted to stay in and write Chinese characters.

He received his bachelor’s degree in 1985 and spent the summer in Ann Arbor taking Chinese five days a week, four hours a day.

“By the time I completed that second year of intensive Chinese, I was speaking and writing well enough to do anything I needed to do in China,” Dunne says.

And just like that, it was au revoir France, ni hao China.

He enrolled in graduate school to study Chinese and Thai history. The University of Michigan is one of the only places in the world where he could study both Thai and Chinese. At the same time, he was also pursuing his M.B.A. from the Ross School of Business.

He traveled to China for the first time in 1986 as a graduate student teaching English at the Institute of Architecture in Chongqing. “So good was the instruction at Michigan that the students, many of whom spoke non-standard Chinese dialects, declared that my Chinese was better than theirs,” Dunne says with a laugh.

After earning his graduate degrees in 1990, he used a University grant to buy a computer and a plane ticket to China. He says he had no plan for when he landed, and no idea that the Chinese car market would soon explode to become the top market in the world. Once again, he just figured he’d find his way.

“The language studies—Chinese and French—completely opened my eyes to the world outside of Midwest America,” he says. “I wanted to explore, and the languages gave me the keys to open many doors that would have otherwise remained elusive or shut forever. It gave me confidence to go out on my own and build a business from scratch in a foreign country.”

American-brand cars on the streets of Shanghai's Pudong business district. In American Wheels, Chinese Cars, Dunne writes that General Motors (G.M.) and its Chinese partners built more than one million Buicks, Chevrolets, and Cadillacs in 2010, generating close to $1 billion in profits. G.M. split the revenue and profits with the City of Shanghai.

After finding his footing in Bangkok -- with his newly acquired Thai language skills and entrepreneurial help from LSA's Center for Southeast Asian Studies in the form of a grant -- Dunne formed Automotive Resources Asia (ARA) to help automakers and suppliers develop market-entry strategies for Asia. The company eventually expanded to include offices in Shanghai, Beijing, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City and quickly developed a reputation as the leading authority on Asia’s burgeoning car industry.

In 2006, J.D. Power and Associates acquired ARA and named Dunne its vice president and managing director for China. He stayed with the company for three years before forming Dunne & Company, an investment advisory company based in Hong Kong that counsels those interested in building businesses in Asia’s automotive industry.

Married with three small children, Dunne lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. He’s the author of the book, American Wheels, Chinese Roads: The Story of General Motors in China (Wiley, 2011), which chronicles how GM has triumphed in China, setting new sales and profit records while its domestic sales dragged the automaker towards bankruptcy.  

Dunne returned to U-M this past November to talk about doing business in China and sign copies of his book. The event was sponsored by the Center for Chinese Studies, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and the Center for International Business Education and Research.

He credits his LSA courses for helping him be successful in China.

“That’s where the creativity came from,” he says. “It inspired me to think creatively, to think out of the box. The Ross M.B.A. trained me to be a manager, which is important. But it was definitely the LSA teaching that I leaned on most heavily.

“I drew inspiration and confidence to go my own way. LSA [teaches] you that the world was a wide open place and you can shape it any way you like.”

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