When newly elected Fisher & Paykel Appliances director Philip Carmichael began doing business in China, most of Beijing's citizens still moved about the city on bicycles.

It was 1976. The upheaval of the Cultural Revolution had only just ended and the country was taking tentative steps towards opening up to the West.

Mao Zedong, the founding father of communist China, had a few months left to live.

Nowadays, after more than three decades doing business in the country, Chicago-born Carmichael is one of the highest ranking Western executives at Haier, the Chinese appliance behemoth that snapped up a 20 per cent stake in F&P Appliances at the beginning of 2009.

He sits on the New Zealand firm's board as one of the two representatives Haier contributes under the terms of last year's deal.

Carmichael has witnessed the monumental changes in China since the 1970s.

Haier has gone from being a crumbling state-owned entity with lousy products to a global appliance giant listed on two stock exchanges with an annual revenue of more than $25 billion.

When he began doing business trips to China - as a 22-year-old "junior operational guy" working for the now non-existent First Chicago Bank - most foreign visitors were not even given a choice over which hotel they could stay in.

They were lumped together in the Beijing Hotel, Carmichael says, presumably so the government could keep an eye on the capitalist devils.

"It was pretty well known in those days that the government was watching you when you were in town ... to make sure you didn't do something wrong or corrupt the population," says Carmichael.

It was a city far removed from Beijing of today - with its traffic-choked streets, designer boutiques and skyscrapers.

For a start Carmichael could catch only two flights in or out of Beijing each week.

"It didn't matter how many meetings you had - you came in on a Monday and you left on a Friday," Carmichael says. "In the early days you only ever had one meeting."

But he knew that focusing on China would provide him with a prosperous future.

"Once I saw [China], I made a career choice and said 'this is where it's going to be'."

And he was right - this month China overtook Japan as the world's second-largest economy.

Carmichael's first project in Beijing was to help secure a licence for First Chicago Bank to operate in the country, the first US bank to do business there.

"We started in 1976 and I think by the time the licence came in I was on to my next career move."

He quickly learned Mandarin and went on to represent other American firms in China, including McDonnell Douglas, IBM and Lexmark, before joining Haier three years ago. At 56, his role as Haier's Asia Pacific president sees him based at a company headquarters (in Qingdao, on the northeast coast) for the first time in his life.

"It took me some time [after arriving at Haier] to realise I'd become one of those corporate weenies I used to complain about at headquarters."

His Taiwanese wife, Li Wei Jun, and the youngest of their three sons live in Qingdao.

But despite being an HQ guy these days, Carmichael still gets around.

When the Weekend Herald spoke to him this week he'd been "on the road" for two months and was about to get on a plane for South Korea.

Sitting on the board of F&P Appliances, Carmichael says, will add more pressure to his hectic work schedule that takes him everywhere from northern Pakistan to East Tamaki.

He was appointed as a director last month in place of Haier senior vice-president Zhou Yunjie.

F&P Appliances chairman Ralph Waters said having Carmichael as a director, rather than Zhou, who did not speak English, had made communication easier.

"This is a guy who bridges both cultures and it's really valuable to have him on the board."

Philip Carmichael
Position: Asia Pacific president of Chinese appliance maker Haier, director of Fisher & Paykel Appliances.

Age: 56.

Born in: Chicago, Illinois.

Based in: Qingdao, China.