He graduated from South China University of Technology in 1982 among the first generation of college students after ‘the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ in China.
After graduation he joined China International Marine Containers Co. (CIMC) as an engineer, and learned technology in Denmark from CIMC’s joint venture partner. A downturn in shipping in 1986 forced CIMC almost into bankruptcy. Mai, as a manager in the production and technology department, persuaded many middle managers to stay on until CIMC’s largest customer, China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company, injected fresh capital in 1987. After the company’s restructuring, Mai was promoted to vice president. Under his leadership, CIMC got its first order from a demanding Japanese client, and then grew fast.
With the ambition to build the firm into a global player, Mai was promoted to president of CIMC in 1992 and became a director of the board in 1994. After reorganizing, CIMC acquired another Chinese container builder in 1993. In 1994 it floated shares on the Shenzhen exchange. During the next five years, the company made a string of acquisitions along China’s coast from Dalian in the northeast to Xinhui in the Pearl River delta, built two new factories and grew to control 42 subsidiaries. CIMC has dominated container manufacturing in the global market since 1996, and increased its global market share by over 50 percent in 2006, with an annual production capacity of 2 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) and nearly 400 product lines. Sales were around US$4.355 billion in 2006, 40 times what they were in 1993.
Since 1993, Mai’s strategy has been aimed at consolidating the industry to support CIMC’s fast growth, especially when the Asian financial crisis forced many Korean and Taiwanese container manufacturers out of business. Mai developed a skill for acquiring capacity, imposing stringent management controls on newly acquired subsidiaries, and coordinating operations throughout China as a means of achieving a decisive cost advantage in the container industry. He was able to install uniform business controls at CIMC’s every acquisition and rapidly to absorb acquired subsidiaries into the group. Under his leadership, economies of scale allowed CIMC to reduce costs and offer competitive prices.
Mai is very sensitive to industrial trends. He said to other entrepreneurs at the 2007 International Competitiveness of China Industry Forum: ‘We cannot precisely predict what will happen tomorrow. Everything is possible tomorrow. Therefore, what we can do is prepare our own competitive advantages, and establish a strong ability to adapt to the external environment.’ As a bold captain, Mai would face any kind of storm. He strategically accumulated capacity in the period of industrial decline, and seized opportunities in the period of industrial growth. ‘I would like to say that the corporate strategic capability is not built overnight, it is the result of a long-term upgrading process with a strong focus.’
Over the years Mai has sturdily maintained CIMC’s momentum for steady growth. He strategically extended CIMC’s business to container wooden floors, depot and airport equipment. From its inception in 2002, CIMC’s transport vehicle business rapidly developed its operational scale and product series with 13 production bases. Pursuing Mai’s vision of ‘globalizing business based on the competitive strengths of the PRC,’ Vanguard National Trailer Corp., a subsidiary of CIMC in the USA, acquired the assets of bankrupt HPA Monon for $4.5 million in 2003, and became one of the US trailer industry’s largest companies in the following year. In 2007, CIMC purchased 80 percent equity in Burg Industries at the price of €108 million. Burg is well known in Europe as one of the leading suppliers of transport equipment, containers and special tanks, with €226 million sales in 2006. In August 2007, CIMC brought a stake worth US$145 million in Enric Energy Equipment Holdings. This was the first time that a Hong Kong listed firm became a merger target of a mainland Chinese firm. Mai’s strategy here is to extend CIMC’s production capacity and technical expertise in making containers to the transportation and storage of natural gas, Enric Energy’s specialty.