In among the flood of money seeking assets and investment in the UK since the beginning of the year, we have all seen evidence of an increasingly strong appetite from China and the Far East.
When it comes to the property sector (which is probably third in line after infrastructure and finance) most of that investment has, to date, been either individuals buying into the high-end residential market in London, or big players (such as Dalian Wanda or Gingko Tree) buying into significant residential development opportunities or well let commercial investments.
At Airport City Manchester, the aim of the initial international strategy has been to seek out not speculators, but Chinese businesses that are looking for a platform to launch into the UK, Europe and the rest of the world — an approach that is also being taken by Associated British Ports at the Royal Docks in Newham.
To this end, we undertook a week-long roadshow through the mainland in early summer, taking in five cities in a week — Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Shenzhen and flying back from Hong Kong.
At the invitation of the Beijing Construction and Engineering Group (partners in the joint venture behind Airport City) we hosted four keynote and two media presentations and a raft of meetings as well as four VIP dinners.
We were accompanied by representatives from Manchester Airport Group, MIDAS, Marketing Manchester and the Manchester China Forum, and had fantastic support from the British Consulate, UK Trade and Investment and CBBC (the China-Britain Business Council, not the TV channel).
We were searching for the proverbial needle(s) in a haystack. We sought Chinese businesses that wanted to take advantage of: Airport City Manchester’s unrivalled local, national and international connectivity; access to talent from the hugely well-regarded North West universities; the advanced manufacturing and advanced materials/science and technology sectors in which the area specialises; not to mention the clean air, golf courses and football!
During the course of the week, we met around 250 businesses, all of them very different to the organisations and individuals who we are probably more accustomed to seeing investing in the UK. And we followed this up by returning to Beijing in July to attend an SME expo with the Beijing Construction Engineering Group, which gave us exposure to many more. So what did we learn?
The first thing that hits you as soon as you move around mainland China is that it is big, and full of people. Every mode of transport was packed with insistent (but polite) travellers of all ages and backgrounds — trains, planes, automobiles, motorbikes, cycles - you name it, they were overflowing.
This is the demographic that is becoming increasingly middle class and will unleash upon the world both a massive demand for the products which we take for granted (other than mobile phones of course, where they seem to lead the world already) and a huge outflow of savings, as pensions and other structured investment funds takes root.
Vast tracts of the place are also being built as we speak. The six-hour high-speed train journey from Beijing to Shanghai took us past an almost continuous stream of concrete apartment and office blocks. Shenzhen was a fishing village 15 years ago and is now one of the largest city conglomerations. So they know a thing or two about rapid progress, and seem to take it in their stride.
For us, the most interesting reaction that we got was how keen the Chinese entrepreneurs are to do business. We met a good cross-section of both the state-owned enterprises and the SMEs that are looking to internationalise. They represented all ages — often the older generation were accompanied by sons and (more often) daughters who had been educated abroad and/or could speak excellent English.
They wanted to understand how we could help them expand, what businesses in the North West we could put them in touch with and, very importantly, what special treatment they would get for investing in Airport City as opposed to anywhere else in Europe — we were able to offer the advantages of being in the Greater Manchester Enterprise Zone, and all that entails.
We came away with three to four active business contacts, with whom we are now discussing specific property solutions, and a longer list of potential leads that will visit Manchester and the North West later in the year.
Hopefully their interest will form a bridgehead that will allow other businesses to use Airport City Manchester as both a landing pad in the UK and a springboard further afield.
The Chinese business dragon is certainly awakening,and if you approach it in the right way, and crucially, with the right support — you shouldn’t get burnt. Was the trip a success? Well, as Zhou Enlai, first premier of the People’s Republic of China, reportedly said of the effect of the French Revolution, “it is too early to tell”.
David Partridge is managing partner at Argent