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15 APR 2024, 14:13

Some have a talent for spotting the next big thing. Even more impressive are the people who make it happen. Serena Li, Director of Overseas Sales and Marketing, High-volume, is certainly the latter: a fast learner with the drive and curiosity it takes to turn local market leaders into successful global brands. Just a decade after she spearheaded the international expansion of China’s leading fluid dispensing automation company, Axxon is now a global leader in its segment.

Hitting the ground running

From her first days out of university, Serena had already decided to immerse herself in the world of advanced manufacturing. Within a few weeks she had landed her first job at BYD, at the time China’s fastest-growing automotive company and now the world’s largest EV manufacturer.

“I had a lot to learn, very quickly,” explains Serena, “First as a business engineer and later as NPI engineer, I learned how these giant players work, getting to know the supply chains from upstream to downstream, and the manufacturing processes from module to assembly. Then as business assistant to the General Manager, I got a cross-functional perspective on how the functions influence one another and began to understand the purpose of each process as well as its impact on financial results. All these experiences, no matter how small, were meaningful to me.”

Entering the industrial heartlands

Having grown up in Huaihua in the Hunan province, Serena eventually decided to move to Shenzhen to be closer to her soon-to-be husband. It was no coincidence that Shenzhen was also the global epicenter of manufacturing, a veritable incubator of world-shaping innovations.

“This was twelve years ago, before Axxon was part of Mycronic,” says Serena. “And I was hired as a marketing specialist. Compared with my previous company, Axxon was a small company then – but more flexibility and room to grow were exactly what I was looking for. It was also fortunate that I had an open-minded boss and a chance to try a lot of different roles. Within a few years I had been GM assistant, worked in marketing and customer service, and led the customer service department. I gained a lot of different perspectives on the business, both from the top down together with my boss, and from the ground up together with the technical sales teams.”

A living science

Her talents quickly gravitated towards marketing where, she realized, a lot of hard work needed to be done to promote the company’s next phase of growth. “What fascinates me about marketing,” says Serena, “is that it’s a living science. You can’t just learn it once and do your job. You always have to keep learning, with new media and new trends constantly popping up. I established the first phase of the Axxon brand identity which, compared to a lot of Chinese competitors at the time, was quite different, more western and more modern. It was the kind of knowledge no one could really teach. I just had to learn from international competitors and from every channel I could touch.”

Overseas expansion

As the business grew, Serena continued to accumulate knowledge as she built up the marketing team, learned the names and purchases of every customer as head of customer service and monitored sales for the General Manager. But despite the intellectual stimulation, she sometimes felt as if she was swimming upstream.

Finding focus

“Very often I had moments of self-doubt” says Serena. “As a woman, especially ten years ago, it was hard. Sometimes you need to work twice as hard to prove your ideas will work. At the same time, you’re expected not to be too aggressive. The industry was even more male-dominated back then than it is today, and even though I got a lot of help and support at times I started to wonder if there was an invisible glass ceiling above me.”

“At the time, I was delivering,” she continues. “But I was overwhelmed. And I knew that was not what I wanted. Somewhere inside me there was a voice saying: ‘I want to dig deeper into the business. I want a challenge that I can follow through from start to finish.’ This was just before we became part of Mycronic. We were already a domestic leader in our segment, and it was clear we needed to expand internationally. So, I told my boss: ‘Why don’t I see how far we can take our overseas business?’ He said: ‘That sounds great, but we need concrete proposals. Consolidate your ideas and get back to me, and let’s see how far we can go.’ So, I created what I thought was a quite optimistic five-page presentation – and things really took off from there.”

I know how hard it is for an automation company from China to make it on the world stage. But now we’re number one in dispensing as part of Mycronic, so we’re showing it’s possible.

Serena Li. Director of Overseas Sales and Marketing, High Volume division

Paving new paths

Prior to the company’s acquisition by Mycronic in 2016, Serena’s team had already made contact with a number of international distributors and had initiated several large global key accounts. The company had around one hundred staff but, with business focused on the domestic market, no product or marketing materials in English. “Back then the CEO and I were the only English speakers in the company, so all communications had to go through me. We had to find a straight path toward our goal, build the team, push everyone to create the basic documentation and take it one cus

tomer and one project at a time.”

But the biggest challenges to internationalization, says Serena, have nothing to do with language or translation. “It’s everything,” she explains. “Your products have to be westernized. You have to reposition against new competitors. You have to repackage your sales pitch. Everything.” Within the first year, they had sold some 60 systems outside of China, mainly in the fast-growing technology hubs of Southeast Asia. “And we did this with very limited resources,” adds Serena. “The product wasn’t quite perfect, but we achieved big things with a small, dedicated team.”

Since then, Axxon’s overseas sales have grown at an annual rate of more than 65% and today average nearly 400 installed MYSmart systems per year, with customers ranging from consumer electronics production to automotive, EV, 5G, semiconductor and medical.

Bigger expectations

So, how has the journey matched up with Serena’s original five-page business development proposal? “I’d say my experience has been far beyond the expectations I set back then. I know how hard it is for an automation company from China to make it on the world stage. But now we’re number one in dispensing as part of Mycronic, so we’re showing it’s possible. And we’re not stopping now.”

Reflecting on her career path, Serena is careful to recognize all the friends, colleagues and hobbies that have supported her through the most stressful times. “It can all look like a smooth journey,” she says, “but that’s why it’s important for me not to just share the A-side of my experience. Because there’s also a B-side that supports everything. Privately, it means maintaining body practices like yoga, going out with friends and reading — whether it’s business-related material or a Chinese novel. I’m always trying to learn. And professionally, I’ve been really encouraged and inspired by energetic colleagues.”

The gift of a good team

Almost as if on cue, two colleagues knock on the meeting room door (while Serena’s office door ) and appear on her videoconference screen as she speaks. Both are smiling broadly, laughing and carrying an armful of carefully wrapped gifts. It’s a basket of local Mexican candies, brought with handwritten wishes from a team of Mexican colleagues who had just arrived for the annual sales review meeting.Serena gestures towards her colleagues and laughs: “See? This is what supports me! Everyone here really appreciates each other. We’re an incredibly diverse group, and I really thrive on this mix. It’s an irreplaceable team, and one that’s rare to find in the local market. They’re young, very mature and smart – with a lot of technical skills and networks with other talents.”

“Of course we have different opinions,” she adds with a sly grin, “but we’re very pragmatic. We’re always open with one another. We have tight communication. And we try to avoid a lot of the unnecessarily complicated language that tends to slow things down.”

Building better together

Looking ahead, it’s clear that Serena remains driven by the same curiosity and ambition that have carried her this far. “My pride,” she explains, “is all about how to bring Axxon and Mycronic to the world stage. It’s a heavy responsibility but it will make me proud. I know these are good products. I know it’s a good team. And I know there are differences to doing business here locally and in other global markets. A lot of the original team is still here with me, growing together and building something even better. We have a bigger dream and I know we can bring a lot of value to the industry.”

Text: Grant Baldridge


Age: 37
Title: Director of Overseas Business Group, Marketing in High-Volume, Axxon Mycronic, Shenzhen
Family: Married
Interests: Yoga/gym training, hiking, reading, spending time with friends


  • Location: Shenzhen, China
  • Approximately 900 employees
  • Acquired by Mycronic in 2016, now part of the High Volume division
  • World’s largest supplier of automated systems for dispensing and coating
  • Industries served: Consumer electronics, automotive, 5G & energy storage, semiconductor and medical