This is an interview I wrote for a new expat paper here in Hangzhou,China. (Hangzhoufeel)
The author pretending to eat the moon cake
Be in harmony, yet be different.
Around 1999 a young Dane named John F. Christensen was in China and felt peckish––he fancied a snack. He soon found out that finding a decent sandwich in Shanghai was blooming difficult. And so he opened a café – Wagas. As serendipity would have it, the venue for today's meeting with another European with an entrepreneurial bent is Wagas in The Kerry Centre in downtown Hangzhou.
Over coffee, and an early cheeky pork and pickle mooncake, I meet Benjamin Speyer CEO of the Hangzhou-based consultancy Serica. Ben is a fellow Brit who has, for the past five and a half years, been building a consultancy to attract innovative companies from home and abroad to invest in Hangzhou.
As we spoke Ben talked about what had attracted him to Hangzhou. As with any traveller trying to find their feet in a new country one’s journey is influenced by being in the right place at the right time and talking to people who can steer you in the right direction. Ben was pointed to Hangzhou. He tells me of his love for the West Lake area where he lives, and the attractions of Longling and the other scenic areas in the vicinity. But he is also keen to point out how he likes the contradictions of the Binjiang area with its concrete towers and business ethic when balanced against the unique ancient culture of Hangzhou.
Balance in both his private and his business life is something Ben touches on during our conversation. Hailing from Sheffield and being a Yorkshireman, Ben would have no truck with me wanting to link his notion of balance to Chinese Taoism or Confucianism but it was a theme he was drawn back to throughout our meeting.
His company, for example, employs a balanced workforce, half are Chinese and half are Western. His vision is, what matters most is that foreign business can work with Chinese companies and that they want to be together. His is an industry that has an international influence and is not predominantly of the West or the East. He argues that Hangzhou is a rich city and the IT industry is attracting young people who have a different aesthetic to the old guard. It is in this way that wealth and innovation is created.
It wasn’t easy at the beginning for Ben. Before the G20 meeting held in Hangzhou 4–5 September 2016 the logistics of starting a business was a nightmare of paperwork and bureaucracy – it took him eight months to get the green light. Thankfully, he tells me, that's now a thing of the past and a new start up or business could be up and running within a month.
The thing is, he explains, returning to the theme of equilibrium, there needs to be a sense of understanding and trust between the Chinese and the wai guo ren if they are to be successful at business. The ongoing communication needs to recognise that cultural differences exist and these are often the sticking points that hinder the required outcomes.
This is the Land of Silk, he explains, and often hard-nosed businessmen from the West do not understand the culture and things go awry. To do business in China, one has to be shrewder and smarter. Learning Chinese business tactics is a key factor, here Ben cites successful Chinese businesses such as Alibaba and Tencent that snap up business opportunities and diversify mercilessly.
“The strength of one is the weakness of others, and the weakness of one is the strength of others” he tells me cryptically. It’s all about balance. China, he argues, must become more internationalist. It needs to continue to achieve good clear communications, which is a big challenge given the political rhetoric of the Trump regime and suspicions aimed at Chinese companies such as Huawei. Western businesses tend to be static, he suggests, whereas in China businesses can be fast and flexible.
Ben is keen to encourage other foreigners to kick-start their dream of running a business in China and Hangzhou is the place to do it. A city where the ancient and the modern find harmony. But he points to the fact that uncertainty is often the major stumbling block for incomers wanting to start their own business. Myths and untruths circulate the expat community about how difficult it is and all the problems and the pitfalls of the system.
He points to the new incentives being made to incoming and new companies like his own. For instance, Serica, his company, was the first in the world to be offered free office space. He explains that it is important to get the right partners to move forward, developing what he calls a hybrid company offering a combination of Western and Chinese work practices. Find the mid-ground, he mentors, find the balance. He accepts that it's hard and challenging, but the rewards are worthwhile. “We’ve all made the same mistakes, but look at Jack Ma – bringing people together.”
“There are serious challenges ahead,” he counsels, “but the Chinese economy is growing, even if it dropped to 1% a year that would still be huge. It’s too big to fail and nothing will prevent China from rising.” So what’s it like to do business in China? I press him for five words. Ben sits back and takes a moment to reflect. “Exciting and thrilling,” come first, then “challenging.” He pauses again, “progressive, but rewarding.” Then, with a smile, the final word–– “profitable.”