Post 200 Roadshow: The Accidental Home Office

Welcome to a new feature we're calling the Post 200 Roadshow. Each week or so we plan to drop in on the region's biggest companies, nonprofits, employers and law and lobby firms to have a look around and chat up their executives. This week, we stop by Chindex International, a publicly traded healthcare company based in Bethesda.And check out the Post 200 here.

By Kendra Marr

Chindex International's chief executive and co-founder Roberta Lipson lives in Beijing. But about once about every six weeks she'll make a trip to the United States.

So last week we were lucky to catch her on a rare trip to Washington. Lipson was in town for the annual US-China Business Council board meeting, where she sits on the board of directors.

Chindex operates Western-style hospitals in China's three major cities -- Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou -- and distributes medical equipment throughout China.

So how did a kid from Long Island end up providing premium private healthcare in this emerging world power?

Roberta Lipson, Chindex chief executive, right, meeting with staff, including Judy Zakreski, vice president for U.S. Operations, in the company's Bethesda office. Credit: Lois Raimondo / The Washington Post

From an early age, Lipson was fascinated with China. At 6 years old, she distinctly remembers her sister telling her at a Chinese restaurant: "If you don't learn to eat rice, you won't be able to go to China like Pearl Buck."

Fast foward to her college years: Lipson majored in Chinese history at Brandeis University and studied abroad in Taipei for a year. Not knowing what to do next, she attended business school at Columbia University.

But when China finally opened its doors to the West in 1979, Lipson was among the first group of Americans to visit Beijing. And she never left.

"I came back once in '81 just to clear my mind and make sure this is what I wanted to do," she said.

Chindex's US headquarters landed in Bethesda purely by accident.

With more than 1,000 employees stationed abroad in China, it's no wonder that nearly everything about the health care company -- from the Chindex logo to double-sided business cards -- is bilingual. Credit: Kendra Marr / The Washington Post

The company's first home was in New York City. Then rising rent moved them to Hoboken, NJ.
At one point, Chindex trying to persuade its outside counsel to become a full time employee. He didn't want to leave the DC area.

But a staff poll revealed everyone in the office was willing to move.

"It turned out to be a fortuitous thing," Lipson said. "I wasn't smart enough to realize it in advance, but it's a great place to be. When out Chinese customers visit we entertain and show them around."

Plus, Chindex works closely with the Department of Commerce, the State Department and International Finance Corporation, among other global organizations.

We took the elevator up to the top floor of Bethesda Towers, just a few blocks from the Metro station, and was immediately met with a bright red wall branded with the Chindex logo.

Chindex's small Bethesda office houses just 14 employees. With more than 1,000 employees stationed abroad in China, it's no wonder that everything about the healthcare company -- from its signs to double-sided business cards -- is bilingual.

We sat in the conference room to chat, since Lipson doesn't have her own office.

"I'm never here!" she laughed.

Lipson is bubbly and smiley throughout our entire meeting.

But when the topic of China's recent earthquake came up, she became very serious.

"A terrible, terrible tragedy," she said, shaking her head.

The day after the quake, Lipson called up the president of the hospital in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province: "I told him, just let us know what you need."

By midnight boxes of antibiotics were at the doorstep of her Beijing home. And the next morning, the boxes were on a Red Cross plane to ground zero.

Chindex has since held several blood drives and donated $65,000 to disaster relief. The company is also offering psychological and counseling care to survivors, relief workers and the media.

Lipson says she'll probably be back to the states this summer. All three of her children will be attending summer camp in Maine.

"It's very American," she said.

By Dan Beyers  |  June 12, 2008; 4:53 PM ET  | Category:  Post 200 Roadshow
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