VINCE CUNNINGHAM, 57, of Honley works for the China-Britain Business Council (CBBC). It has 11 offices across China and works closely with UK Trade and Investment and Yorkshire Forward to develop British business in China. Here he reveals what it’s like doing business with China
‘I was shocked to find out that a “working lunch” meant a mere two hours in the restaurant, rather than three’
LANDING in Shanghai in July, 2002, to deliver UK technology and build the first of a series of factories I didn’t know what to expect.
I had read the facts about China’s staggering growth, heard that they did business in a “different” way and knew I had to be cautious about something called “face”.
What I didn’t know then was that, once I got to understand just a little about China, the energy in the country would make me feel 10 years younger every time I visited the country.
It took me about three months to come to terms with the fact that things are done differently in China. The long meetings, sometimes lasting days, seemed very inefficient. I was shocked to find out that a “working lunch” meant a mere two hours in the restaurant, rather than three.
The more I pushed for “western efficiency” the more I met with resistance. I was told that the concept of “face” was “old China”. Then a couple of incidents when I put someone in a situation where they could “lose face” taught me that there is no such thing as “old China” or “new China”.
There was simply “China” and to succeed there you have to work in a way that can seem quite alien to us.
For example, that two-hour working lunch may seem a poor use of time, but you’re not going to stop it and it can be used for many purposes, such as building the relationships that are key to success, delivering messages, selling (is the guy across the table that we haven’t met before a potential client?).
I also came to realise that although events always seemed slightly out of control they always seemed to work out in the end, “China style”.
Some Brits can’t handle the way that we have to operate in China and detest it. Some want to keep the cocoon of their five-star hotel around them, drink in the overpriced western bar and eat steak and chips.
The opposite started to happen to me. I found I could use the Chinese way of working to my advantage. I bought a bicycle to explore Shanghai and wandered the streets, parks and markets with my camera, fascinated by the contrasts in front of my eyes.
My Chinese team was a young team. Their director gave me some 20 years. No one had any grey hair; I had lots! Later I discovered that a lot of hair dye is sold in China!
To my surprise I came into work one day to find the team had christened me “Uncle Vince”. At first that was really unsettling, until I came to realise that it had complex implications, and in the mix were elements of respect and affection.
Once a young lady told me that I was not middle aged. My male ego swelled; logic argued that if she didn’t think I was middle aged she must think I was young! Mistake!
The euphoria lasted about two seconds, until she said in a very level voice: “You’re ancient”, and brought me crashing down to reality.
The most extreme example of having to be creative to succeed in China was getting the building for the new factory completed in time.
My team of Chinese engineers and project managers were doing a great job of sourcing all of the equipment and machines we needed to start installing on May 1, 2003. The problem was that my client’s president, Tim, had given the building contract to an acquaintance.
The building was going up very slowly and a series of inspections and meetings in early 2003 did nothing to reassure me.
I tried every technique in the book; nothing worked and it risked getting worse as, when Tim’s friend was late, everyone would “lose face”. Eventually in exasperation I had an idea. I told Tim that I didn’t believe he would complete the building on time, but if he did I would bring him two bottles of 40- year-old Scotch, the “drink of kings and presidents”.
However, if his friend was late he had to give me two bottles of Moutai, the very best Chinese spirit.
Tim could not resist the bet, and just to make sure, I let everyone involved in the project team know about it.
Building contractors appeared as if by magic and Tim won the whisky; but I got my building on time!
China is a fascinating, sometimes topsy-turvy, country of 1.3bn individuals determined to make its mark on the world.
It is open for trade and offers huge opportunities, which sometimes we Brits grasp more slowly than our competitors. I’m not building factories in China any more but I now get to help a lot of British companies.
Take a look at what we do and visit www.cbbc.org, or contact me at email@example.com