Irish business leaders’ trip to China offers glimpse of turbocharged economy
Delegation learned of opportunities and challenges of doing business in the high-growth region
The 120-strong delegation from Ireland visited Hong Kong as part of the annual EY Entrepreneur of the Year CEO Retreat. Photograph: Getty Images
“Build Your Dreams” reads the sign at the entrance to the vast industrial campus in Shenzhen occupied by BYD, a Chinese conglomerate that manufactures electric vehicles and the batteries that power them.
Forget Elon Musk and Tesla, BYD is motoring ahead in delivering electric cars and trucks and battery-powered public transport vehicles to the market.
In 2018, it achieved 247,811 electric vehicle sales globally. This was more than 2,500 units ahead of Tesla, almost twice the level of Germany’s BMW, and roughly the same number as Nissan, Hyundai, Renault and Volkswagen combined.
Established in 1995, BYD began life by making batteries but has since expanded into a major global conglomerate, in which renowned American stock market investor Warren Buffett has a 10 per cent shareholding.
The 120-strong delegation from Ireland, thought to be the largest trade mission from these shores to the region, were told how BYD has 240,000 staff and 260,000 patents. It has three public companies, two of them in Hong Kong, and one in Shenzhen, about an hour’s drive from the border with the former British colony.
Some 50,000 staff work at the BYD site visited by the EY group, according to the tour guide, with about 15,000 housed on the campus in what look like basic, high-rise dormitories.
A circular multistorey car park houses electric charging points on every level, and a driverless sky rail (akin to what you might see at large, multiterminal airports) helps people get around the vast site, which even has its own hotel.
With a population of close to 1.4 billion people, and an economy still powered in large part by coal, China receives plenty of negative publicity for its carbon emissions. Last year it provided $36 billion (€31.8 billion) in funding for coal plants outside the country, as part of its so-called Belt and Road Initiative.
And yet, Shenzhen achieved full electrification of its 16,000-strong bus fleet in late 2017. By the end of last year the city had electrified its taxi fleet of 22,000 units. These were all BYD vehicles.
In early 2013 the first BYD pure electric bus was introduced in Europe. You’ll now find BYD buses and taxis in 70 European cities, including as part of London’s fleet of red double deckers.
This year, BYD will make 650,000 vehicles, of which 400,000 will be electric. The scale of its business and the speed of acceleration in its activities is a useful metaphor for the entire Chinese economy.
“The scale of everything and the speed at which they get things done is incredible,” said Daniel Mackey of Cork-based software company Teamwork. com and winner of last year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year award along with co-founder Peter Coppinger.
“We think we’re going fast back home but we’re going at a snail’s pace compared to what companies are doing out here. That’s the biggest takeaway for us from this trip. We should be going faster. It’s exciting to see what they’re doing out here and we need to bring some of that energy home.”
BYD was one of three site visits made by the Irish entrepreneurs on a busy day in Shenzhen, which is considered the hardware capital of the world. There was also a visit to Liam Casey’s successful manufacturing operation at PCH, where manual labour is still used extensively as it assembles smartphones and other products for customers.
They also visited Hax, the accelerator programme established in 2012 by Irish-American tech entrepreneur Sean O’Sullivan and his company SOS Ventures.
SOSV has funded more than 800 start-ups (it has more than 40 Irish companies in its portfolio) and puts about 150 companies a year through the Hax programme, where the founders will have access to seed funding and a team of engineers, designers and mentors to help accelerate their ideas.
Hax’s funky offices were buzzing on the day the EY group visited, with a couple of people hunkered on the floor fiddling with what looked like drone prototypes.
In the same office building are market stalls selling every sort of electronic component imaginable.
SOSV has invested about $300 million to date across a handful of funds. And while most of the businesses that go through Hax fail, the programme makes huge returns for its investors as the start-ups who make it generally score big.
O’Sullivan is a big fan of China but he also accepts that it’s not always playing to the same set of rules as the West.
US president Donald Trump has alleged that China has engaged in billions of dollars of IP theft over the years, and this has been a key component on the recent tariff war.
While the Chinese government has introduced measures to curb IP theft, O’Sullivan acknowledges that this remains a burning issue.
“The truth is that China has had an unlevel playing field for decades. Historically, there has been so much IP theft in that, for example, if you’re making a hardware product [in the West], you could pay $8,000 a year for a software licence per engineer on that product to say Boeing or a car manufacturer. If you come to China, people routinely have not been paying that. By doing that, that’s making the western companies uncompetitive.
“And the internet is not a free internet in China. Most of the hardware in the world is internet-connected so that means that nothing from the rest of the world will be able to be used here. It’s a complete walled-off garden. They’ve done this for a very long time.
“That’s effectively been a theft of marketplaces . . . from the West for what looks to be trillions of dollars. You’ve had [Chinese] companies like Alibaba who have never had to compete with the rest of the world.
“I say all this not because I don’t love China, I do love China. But China is now very strong. The people are so talented, so smart and so hard working that they don’t need that unlevel playing field and I think they should drop it . . . and take pride in the fact that they don’t need an unlevel playing field to compete.”
Peter Cosgrove is chief executive of ATA Group, a Cavan-based company that makes precision engineering tools. He was an EY finalist in 2013 and travelled on this year’s retreat. His company buys about €10 million worth of raw material from China each year, mostly tungsten.
“To date we have not been as successful in selling our finished product back in to the Chinese market, selling in the region of €1 million per annum,” he said. “Some of this is down to Chinese end-users not wishing to pay for western premium quality.
“We are looking to partner with local businesses, to give us the best chance of targeting those customers. The challenge will be to build those partnerships without risking a copying of our intellectual property. This is an issue for all of western industry, but we believe the right partners can be found and a level of trust will build over time, largely as a result of the commercial opportunity it presents to Chinese companies.”
Most of the trip was spent in Hong Kong, which was handed over to China in 1997 and is a self-administered territory. One country, two systems is the slogan used by China to explain the relationship with Hong Kong, which has retained a number of freedoms.
There are no restrictions on the internet, English remains an official language, and there are strong legal protections for intellectual property and licences.
Financial services remains the heartbeat of the economy and it promotes itself as a bridge into China for western companies.
Some 54 per cent of China’s overseas investment uses Hong Kong as its regional hub.
“Hong Kong was very surprising to me in that I didn’t know that English was a first language over here and I always thought they were behind the Chinese [internet] firewall as well,” said Mackey.
“But they’re not and that makes it much more attractive. We’ll definitely be doing some targeted advertising down here and maybe even set up a sales office here.”
Hong Kong’s attractiveness to Irish businesses was enhanced by the launch a year ago of a daily direct flight from Dublin operated by Cathay Pacific, which the EY group used to travel to and from the territory.
Since launching, Cathay has flown nearly 40,000 passengers and carried two million kilos of freight on the route.
Enterprise Ireland established an office in Hong Kong in 2003. Irish success has being achieved in food and drink, the education sector, aviation, and fintech, according to Patrick Yau, EI’s local representative.
The Irish delegation heard from Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s political leader, during their trip. Lam noted how bilateral trade with Ireland last year amounted to $1.4 billion (€1.25 billion), representing growth of 34 per cent.
“In the past five years, the annualised growth comes in at just under 7 per cent,” she said, adding that about $900 million (€795 million) of merchandised trade between Ireland and China was routed through Hong Kong last year.
Lam told the Irish entrepreneurs that Hong Kong offers a “business-friendly environment with a low- and simple-tax regime” for expatriates seeking to start a business there.
“Hong Kong has signed some 250 binding bilateral trade agreements with 17 nations . . . covering everything from investment, promotion and protection to air services, avoidance of double taxation and legal matters,” she said.
The Irish business leaders also heard about the opportunities presented by the development of a strategic economic zone for the Greater Bay Area, comprising Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan, Huizhou, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Jiangmen and Zhaoqing in Guangdong Province on the mainland.
Between them, they have a population of more than 70 million people and annual GDP in excess of €1.2 trillion.
The plan extends to 2035 and aims is to provide a cluster effect, with the 11 cities effectively feeding off the strengths of the others. Some of the language used in the framework agreement published in February might also suggest that it is an attempt by the Chinese leadership in Beijing to exercise more control on the self-administered territories of Hong Kong and Macao (a former Portuguese colony).
One of the goals of the plan is to enable “compatriots in Hong Kong and Macao to share with the people in the motherland both the historic responsibility of national rejuvenation and the pride of a strong and prosperous motherland”.
Lam noted that 2,600 start-ups had been created in Hong Kong in the past few years, with about a third of them founded by foreign nationals, she added.
“Our start-up community is highly international. I invite Irish companies of every size to join us here in Hong Kong.”
Maurice Healy was a 2016 EY finalist and has been doing business in China for years through his company Healy Group. He buys $12 million (€10 million) to $15 million (€13 million) a year in ingredients for the pharmaceutical and nutrition products used by his manufacturing clients worldwide.
His advice to other Irish entrepreneurs considering doing business in the region? “Get on a plane and don’t go home. I spent six months of our first year here and I spent that time just building my relationships.
“I was doing no business whatsoever but I was building my team. My primary function was to go and visit factories. I visited some of them five or six times in that six-month period to build my relationships. Now they trust me, and they value what I do for them.”
The EY delegation stayed a week, not six months but their exposure over the course of the retreat to a long line of high-calibre economists, academics, fellow entrepreneurs and senior local officials, left them with a clear sense of the opportunities and challenges of doing business in the populous and high-growth region.