Airbnb's China chief departs abruptly just months into job

Airbnb co-founder and CEO Brian Chesky speaks at an event to launch the brand's Chinese name in Shanghai. PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO (BLOOMBERG) - In a blow to Airbnb, the head of the company's China business has left four months after taking the top job there.

Hong Ge, a former software engineer at Facebook and Google, told colleagues he was leaving the company for another opportunity. His departure reflects the struggle Airbnb faces in China, where protectionist laws and fierce competitors have long humbled tech giants like Uber Technologies. Just this month, its government forced Airbnb and other home-sharing companies to cancel bookings in Beijing's city centre in the lead up to the Communist Party Congress.

Airbnb has long regarded building a brand in China as vital, as affluent millennials travel more than ever before. It spent years raising money and preparing the groundwork to tackle local rivals Xiaozhu and Tujia, which just raised US$300 million (S$408 million).

While the company has offered properties there since 2013, chief executive officer Brian Chesky, this year, renamed the service "Aibiying" and pledged to double investment in China. It now complies with controversial laws that give local authorities access to users' information.

In an e-mail sent to colleagues, Ge did not elaborate on his reasons for leaving but reflected extensively on Airbnb's breakneck pace of expansion in past months.

Its offices have grown from 30 people to more than 120 in Parkview Green in Beijing, while total listings had doubled to 140,000 from 70,000 a year ago. Airbnb's on track to double room-nights of Chinese origin to eight million in 2017, and Ge also pointed out his team reduced instances of fraud from over 8 per cent of gross bookings to less than 2 per cent.

"It's a very tough decision for me to leave behind all of what we have built together. But hey, it's a small world. I will still be in the Internet industry," he wrote. "I'm sure our paths will cross again in the future."

Ge did not respond to messages sent to his WeChat social media account.

Airbnb had searched unsuccessfully since 2015 to recruit a business chief for China, before finally promoting Ge from within. On June 1, Chesky told employees Ge would report directly to him.

"This marks the end of what began as an external search for a China president," he wrote. "As we met with candidates, it became clear that the best person to lead China was already inside our building."

Ge was well-regarded by other executives in China's shared housing space, including at rivals, who saw him as a potent mix of local know-how and Western expertise.

Cheksy told employees that Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk would take over as chairman for the country, spending half his time on the China business and making monthly trips there. That management change was unexpected, two people familiar with the matter say. A team of senior executives, including vice-president of employee experience Beth Axelrod, descended on Airbnb's Beijing office at the time of the announcement, they said, asking not to be identified for discussing internal matters.

Kum Hong Siew, who runs Airbnb's business in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region, will now play an even more prominent role, though his portfolio is becoming unwieldy. He is the deputy general counsel for the Asia-Pacific, the head of business for the region, and now the steward of the company's operation in China. Siew has worked at Airbnb since 2012, when he joined after a nearly four-year stint as Yahoo's general counsel for South-east Asia.

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