All the talk about the Hinkley Point negotiations has made me reflect on my experiences of doing business in China, and how business and technology have developed in that country in such a short space of time.
I first went to China in the 1990s to negotiate the sale of a manufacturing line and the resultant product in a place called Cheng Du. Thomas Cook did not go there, and I soon found out why. It was cold and wet and I felt miserable with my surroundings but it was more than balanced by the friendliness and warmth of the people – until they were sat the other side of the negotiation table. They were tough negotiators! Clearly, they were determined and very ambitious.
My next experience was a few years later in Wu Hu. Not a dissimilar experience to the first, except that as well as the same degree of ambition, there was a remarkable shift in the knowledge base. My subjective experience was that the Chinese were learning new skills and gaining new understanding both in business and technology. And they were fast learners.
Roll on to the current century and I returned to Wu Hu. The town was transformed almost beyond recognition, all because the original factory, which built engines, was now a fully capable car manufacturing factory, with superbly skilled staff. The owners of the factory had set about recruiting Chinese National automotive engineers from the US and Europe, where they had studied and gained experience with the best automotive companies in the world. What I witnessed was a complete understanding of what they were doing, how they did it, and a constant focus on improvement. Their attention to detail on all components and assemblies was as accurate as I have seen anywhere.
There were still inconsistencies. My next stop was Quongqing: the strangest thing I saw was a manufacturing line that produced components to a tolerance of two microns and then threw them on the floor before the next process! But I’ve followed their progress and I know that company are now making the complete product and holding the tolerance all the way through.
It seems to me that the most important thing the Chinese were doing was taking every opportunity they could to learn, whether this was from the usual training routes at home and abroad, from nationals returning from other countries with new knowledge, or simply from their contact with those who had knowledge they might need, including our business negotiations. Yes, in negotiating I think we shared information that was probably more valuable than the bits and pieces we sold them.
Also, they learnt from their mistakes. And that means not being afraid to make mistakes every now and then – another valuable lesson we should all bear in mind. To learn, make progress and succeed, you have to be ready to accept and deal with the occasional wrong turn.
As we all know, the progress of Chinese industry and technology has been remarkable. I now know of Chinese-owned high tech companies operating in the UK that sell their products back to China. In 25 years China has progressed from being a nation of technology buyers for internal consumption to a producer of high tech for international consumption. I wonder what I’ll see on my next visit. I’ll probably learn a thing or two.
Garry Smith is a business coach at Advantage Business Partnerships and the co-author of Creating Business Advantage: Setting Up and Running A Successful Business (SRA Books, 2015) ISBN 978-1-909116-43-6