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Xiaomi's new global boss looks to fill Hugo Barra's shoes

Wang Xiang doesn't have former exec Hugo Barra's boundless enthusiasm, but instead steers the Xiaomi ship with a calm and steady hand.

Wang Xiang, taken with Xiaomi's new Mi 6 phone.
Aloysius Low/CNET

Xiaomi's new global head isn't a tech rock star like predecessor Hugo Barra, but the startup's plans appear to be in safe hands.

That's at least the impression I got from Wang Xiang, the Chinese manufacturer's senior vice president. He took over the role from Barra, who left in March to work for Facebook and return to the US after three years in China.

Our meeting took place one day after last week's Xiaomi Mi 6 launch event in Beijing, with Wang looking none the worse for wear. Wang asked if I wanted to conduct the interview in Mandarin, but I declined. I've been told he was fluent in English, and I wanted to find out if Xiaomi's global head would be able to communicate clearly with its international audience.

And for the record, yes, he can.

While Wang was more comfortable in Mandarin, he impressed me with his calm and steady command of the language, only pausing once to ask for help in translating a phrase he wasn't quite sure of.

But that's to be expected of a guy who's been working at multinational corporations for most of his career. Before joining Xiaomi in 2015, Wang, whose favorite Xiaomi device isn't a phone but the company's rice cooker, is a graduate of the Beijing Polytechnic University, and was president at Qualcomm Greater China. He has been involved in the semiconductor field for about two decades.

And while he may seem new to the global role, Wang's involvement behind the scenes made him a natural fit for the position. As senior vice president, he was working on the company's global plans even before he took on the new job.

"Actually, Hugo reported to me. About a year ago, we consolidated the international organization into one group. I helped Hugo to organize many many things, to plan strategy," said Wang.

Even as Wang continues Xiaomi's slow, careful rollout into more markets around the world, two of the bigger ones -- the US and Europe -- are notoriously absent. Xiaomi, as a whole, has been careful to dance around the subject of when it is launching in the US.

Wang's explanation of its US launch is very similar to Barra's -- that is, the company is working on it. It's figuring out the how to deal with the different LTE bands in the US and the customizations required by carriers. It's a familiar story, but when pressed, Wang said there are definite plans for a US launch in two years.

"We don't have a fixed timeline, but probably two years, if not sooner. It's ambitious but we want to get into these markets as soon as possible," he said.

Wang added that Xiaomi doesn't want to rush into the US, because the company doesn't want to disappoint its many fans there.

"We don't want to make a random decision. Oh say, here's the Mi 6, let's try the US market, if it doesn't work let's just leave. No, we want to be well-prepared and make a boom in those markets," he added.

Global ambitions

While 2019 is still far away, Xiaomi isn't too worried about missing out on US sales. The company's already in 30 markets around the world, including Russia, and wants to keep its focus on these developing markets first.

Unlike its initial foray into new markets, when the company used to set up offices and hire staff, Xiaomi's has been changing the way it operates. It now uses local distributors that it trusts, and who coincidentally are huge fans of Xiaomi, to run operations. This helps keep the company's headcount lean compared to its competitors.

While Wang seems to understand what it takes to raise Xiaomi's global presence to the next level, the executive does have a problem -- he's just not as good as Barra at marketing the company's products to an international audience. Wang doesn't even post on China's version of Twitter, Weibo, but says he'll start engaging with the company's Mi Fans online once he finds the right time.

"I'll start doing it, I was really busy and I was intentionally not very active in social media," said Wang.

"But yes I will start using social media. It's a big decision for me," he added with a chuckle.

And Wang won't be venturing online alone -- he'll have a product communications team, including Donovan Sung, the current director of product management and marketing for global, to help him with this. His main focus will be maintaining his close relationship with carriers from around the world, acquired during his Qualcomm days.

Most of his time is currently spent traveling -- something that he enjoys -- to attend the company's launches in various countries, catch up with its local distributors and speak with fans of the Mi.

On the downside, this means he's had less time for golfing, another pastime he enjoys. Wang said he hasn't been able to play since joining Xiaomi, and is pretty sure his current handicap has been affected. By now it's "up to I don't know where," he said, laughing.

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