The factory in China's breadbasket

We have had a site in the city of Gaomi in eastern China since 2014. The factory produces high-quality agricultural machines and manufactures components to the same standard as German suppliers. It owes its success to Germany's dual system of vocational training and education and the CLAAS corporate philosophy, which the Chinese employees more than 8,000 kilometres away from our headquarters in Harsewinkel have embraced.

"Conceived in Germany, born in China"

Interview with Bernd Kleffmann, Sebastian Pleuler and Dr Xi Chen.

To the interview

Dr Xi Chen is an early riser. During the week he arrives on site in Gaomi by seven at the latest. Some people still find it a little strange to see him sitting down to breakfast in the vast works canteen and making friendly conversation with the staff. This is because, as General Manager, Chen is responsible for CLAAS production in China – and in Chinese companies, such an approachable boss is something of a rarity.

Chen explains in German that a colleague once said to him: "Dr Chen, in the past we never used to see our bosses very often. But you come into Production and eat with the others in the canteen. I like that." This makes Chen proud, because he particularly values the fact that the Gaomi factory is not a typical Chinese company: "We are a German company, even though we are located in China. Our customers expect the highest standards from our products", he says. "After all, a CLAAS combine harvester is the Mercedes of agricultural machines." To satisfy these expectations, it is very important for Chen to establish the CLAAS culture within the factory.

"My personal motto is: use your initiative, have confidence and stay positive."

– Xiaochuan Liu, fitter

"The success of farmers depends on the quality of our products. That's why I make sure that everything down to the smallest detail is excellent."

– Xiang Zhai, fitter

"As a member of the CLAAS family, I work with colleagues and stakeholders throughout the world to achieve our common goal of obtaining the best prices and driving our business forward."

– Glen Wang, procurement manager

“Apprentices in our factory’s dual education and training programme not only acquire the necessary practical skills, but also develop a valuable awareness of quality and responsibility. In return, they help to produce premium-quality CLAAS products. I'm extremely proud."

– Alfred Liu, director of the dual education and training programme

"I believe that quality goes hand in hand with our own attitudes. That's why I really like the fact that the atmosphere here is so positive."

– Yujian Pan, fitter

Flat hierarchies – no easy task

Chen has the advantage of being very familiar with Germany and German companies. The 45-year-old studied engineering in Germany; he holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Stuttgart and a doctorate from Karlsruhe. He then worked for several years in managerial positions for German automotive suppliers.

Since starting at CLAAS one and a half years ago, Chen has been working hard to flatten the hierarchies in Gaomi. No easy task, as Chinese companies often have far more clearly defined hierarchies than German family businesses like CLAAS. So many colleagues are still reluctant to voice their ideas openly. To overcome this, Chen has introduced quarterly town hall meetings where employees can put questions to the management – even anonymously if they wish.

This approach, still largely unknown in China, has proved popular with staff. Another big success is the new app-based suggestions scheme, which has already led to many improvements in Production. The culture of open communication and constructive criticism that Chen is striving to achieve is also producing results.

700 machines per year

These changes to the corporate culture in recent years have contributed to the success of the production plant. It was established in 2014 as a joint venture with a Chinese company. Since 2016, it has traded under the name CLAAS Agricultural Machinery (Shandong) Co. Ltd and is part of the Germany company.

After initial challenges in gaining a foothold in the Chinese market, CLAAS in Gaomi now produces 700 machines per year – mainly combine harvesters. These are manufactured primarily for the Chinese market under the CLAAS name and the Chinese brand name CHUNYU. For some years now, Gaomi has been preparing the ground for exporting to foreign markets.

The site employs 500 staff and has a comprehensive sales and service network in Central and Northern China. CLAAS is currently the only German firm in Gaomi. The city with 900,000 inhabitants – quite small by Chinese standards – is in the Shandong Province, one of China's main agricultural regions and known as the breadbasket of China. The megacity Shanghai is seven-and-a-half hours away by car, or around six hours by train.

Better than many German suppliers

The Morning Operation Briefing takes place every morning at nine in the meeting room next to Assembly. In these sessions Xi Chen discusses current issues with departmental and area managers for half an hour. They inform him of the progress that has been made and challenges they face. Shirley Wang, 37-year-old head of Quality Assurance at the CLAAS Gaomi site, always attends these meetings.

"The CLAAS corporate culture is based on mutual support and trust", she says. The Quality Department has to work very closely with Production, Design and the customers to achieve the best possible results. And the work of Shirley Wang and her 37-strong team is having an effect.

This is illustrated by the fact that Gaomi also supplies CLAAS Industrietechnik – a subsidiary of the CLAAS Group based in Paderborn. The components produced in Gaomi are used in CLAAS machines throughout the world. The company's headquarters in Harsewinkel recently confirmed that General Manager Chen produces better quality than many German suppliers.

Our colleagues are looking forward to the continued expansion of the factory.

This is due in no small measure to the close relationship that has developed across the national borders. In recent years, German and Chinese colleagues have regularly worked in tandem teams in Gaomi and Harsewinkel. What's more, CLAAS invests heavily in training the workforce in Gaomi. Even during the pandemic – in the middle of China's 'zero-covid' policy – Chinese colleagues flew to Harsewinkel to attend seminars.

Xiandian Meng greatly appreciates this exchange within the CLAAS Group. The 33-year-old is head of the CLAAS Industrietechnik department in China and works closely with CLAAS Industrietechnik colleagues in Paderborn. Meng obtained his master’s in mechanical engineering at RWTH Aachen University and is convinced that German and Chinese cultures complement one another very well. The Chinese are often extremely efficient and flexible, while Germans place great value on accuracy, he explains.

"My colleagues in Gaomi have to get used to the fact that Germans communicate more directly than we do." While the Chinese tend to politely skirt around issues, the Germans don't beat about the bush. "Over time we’ve come to realise that it’s not intended to be personal, it's just matter-of-fact", he laughs.

A working day in Gaomi

Dual education and training: a recipe for success

Another aspect of German corporate culture embraced by the Gaomi plant is the dual education and training programme for technicians. The system is virtually unknown in China, explains Qian Liu, the plant's Dual Education and Training Manager. The 38-year-old engineer joined CLAAS in September 2021 having previously worked for BMW in China and is familiar with the German apprenticeship culture.

Chinese companies normally recruit university graduates and then train them. In contrast, apprentices at CLAAS spend much of their time working in the factory as well as attending college. "When they graduate, these young technicians are already familiar with the company and have a clear career path to follow", says Lui. "That's something they really appreciate." Twelve graduates have completed the programme to date – and if the company has its way, there will be plenty more to follow.

"Our combine harvesters are made in China,
but above all, made by CLAAS"

In an interview, General Manager Dr Xi Chen explains what the CLAAS factory in Gaomi represents.

To the interview with Dr Chen

A key future market

That tallies with the company’s plans for China: CLAAS is developing the export share of the Gaomi factory – with combine harvesters for Europe, Africa and Central Asia. The side of the business that supplies components to other factories is also growing as it helps CLAAS play to its strengths in terms of procurement and in-house production.

"China will remain a key future market for us, although we must always keep a judicial eye on its distinctive characteristics and framework conditions", says Bernd Kleffmann, Senior Vice President Product Unit Combines Range C-F at CLAAS. "China attaches great importance to food self-sufficiency. That's why products from different CLAAS sites have Chinese customers waiting for them. And that includes combine harvesters in green and red from Gaomi."

Xi Chen lives in a small apartment in Gaomi during the week. At the weekend he takes a six-hour train journey back to his wife and three children in Shanghai. On Sunday evenings he commutes back to Gaomi.

Chen plans to progress the factory even further in the coming years, something that the workforce welcomes: "Our colleagues are always willing to learn new skills and look forward to the further development of the factory."

To drive this development forward, Xi Chen will be back in his office again next Monday, by seven at the latest.

From agriculture to literature:
five facts about Gaomi


Gaomi is a district in the Weifang region with a long track record of manufacturing farm machinery such as combine harvesters and tractors that goes back several decades. As a thriving business centre, Gaomi has a mixed agricultural and industrial economy. Shandong Province, where the district is located, is famous for cereal and vegetable production.


With a population of 877,000 – by comparison, Frankfurt am Main has 753,000 – the city of Gaomi, which bears the same name as the district, is small by Chinese standards. Hardly surprising, given that Shandong Province has over 101 million inhabitants, more than Germany, Austria and Switzerland combined.


The city of Gaomi has a population density of 550 inhabitants per square kilometre, more than double that of Germany.


The novelist Mo Yan – the first Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature – comes from Gaomi. Most of his novels are set in the city, including ‘Red Sorghum’, which gave him his literary breakthrough in 1986. It was adapted for film by director Zhang Yimou to critical international acclaim.


Because of Mo Yan's novel, Gaomi is known throughout China for its red sorghum, a type of millet which is grown in the region. Sorghum is not only a global staple food; it is also used in cattle feed and can be processed into bioethanol.

Behind the scenes