The entrepreneur’s FD: Selling to China

HSBC’s Business Thinking competition reached its final stage last week, out in Hong Kong. I was lucky enough to join 150 other existing or potential entrepreneurial bank customers, a few business referrers and a scattering of HSBC staff from throughout the UK, who headed out to the Far East to find out first-hand who the winner was and to spend a few days “thinking about business” within this wide-ranging and diverse collection of people.

Many of the people HSBC invited out to Hong Kong run UK-based manufacturing companies that are doing very well for themselves. Manufacturing in the UK is, contrary to popular opinion, not only alive but genuinely kicking. If asked when UK manufacturing peaked, most will say it was some time back in the 1970s. Wrong. The answer is 2006, with 2009 being the second highest ever year. Let’s stop telling ourselves we can’t manufacture any more. It is not true. We may need to expand manufacturing to take up the impending slack in the economy, but we are not starting from scratch (read Financial Director’s cover story on British manufacturing for more). But we do need to start believing in our own ability and yes, start thinking of manufacturing as “sexy” so that more future high-flyers are attracted into manufacturing than into financial services, as has been the case in the last two decades.

From all the talks we had out in Hong Kong it is obvious to me that China is definitely a land of opportunity for UK companies. Personal consumption there is only just beginning and the Chinese love their brands. If you have a brand (and the more British it is, the better), get over there now: the rewards could be huge. You need to understand that your product will very quickly be copied like hell by the Chinese, but even so, if you can set up the right distribution network the market will be so big, and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future, that your efforts will be well rewarded.

So how do you go about setting up the required network? Normally your first port of call would be UK Trade & Industry or the British Chambers of Commerce. Obviously, HSBC wants its clients to turn to it in their search for help – not help directly from them, but from one of their other customers. It seems to me that the bank has such a large number of clients in so many countries that it is now starting to think about to differentiate itself from the competition, not just in terms of providing finance and financial services, but also in terms of facilitating introductions between clients. It realises it has a long way to go before this becomes a day-to-day reality, but I do think this is relatively out-of-the-box thinking by a bank, for which they deserve due credit.

Declaring my interests, as a part-time FD who was invited out to Hong Kong because I have introduced some of my clients to HSBC in the past, I can see the benefit of this type of networking and how banks can add value. I have always believed that it is worth working closely with banks, but this angle will provide an additional reason why my communication with HSBC in particular will be closer in the future.

The author, David Paget, is a principal in the FD Centre’s South East operations.

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