Aussies on fast boat to China

  • AUSTRALIAN businesspeople in China today tend to stand out from their peers from other countries thanks to their practical, can-do spirit.

This hasn't always been the case. In the early days, after China's opening up to the global economy 30 years ago, some of Australia's biggest companies rushed up to take advantage of what they rightly viewed as a marvellous potential market.

But in most cases, they hadn't done their homework.

Realising the potential was tougher than they anticipated, and it's still hard work.

So the disposition of Australian business in China turned swiftly from naive excitement to jaded scepticism.

Both attitudes can still be found, but overall the Australian business community has in recent years discovered a balanced approach, leavened by patience and an essential sense of humour.

Australia trades with China much more than it invests.

The big end of town tends to be represented within the country by people who are China-savvy and able, but probably not heavy-hitters back at corporate HQ.

There are many Australians here working for big international companies. They're highly sought-after as flexible, Asia-experienced, competent managers.

There are also Chinese-born Australians who have returned to make use of contacts and experiences in both countries to build trade, usually from China to Australia.

But the fastest-growing group of Australians doing business in China are self-funded entrepreneurs who are seizing opportunities in numerous niches in just about every city in the country, from sports medicine to safety devices for cranes, from art galleries to corporate promotions.

Our top five outstanding Australians were chosen from these categories.

Clinton Dines

DINES is the doyen of Australian businesspeople in China. He has been living and working in the Chinese world since 1979, when he arrived on a postgraduate program arranged by Brisbane's Griffith University.

He took up management positions with Jardine Matheson, Santa Fe and Asia Securities Venture Capital.

But he is identified these days as Mr BHP - he has been the China chief for the last 19 years. During this period, China's demand for BHP-Billiton's products has soared.

China is now the leading market for a wide range of the company's commodities. Observers sometimes presume that in such hot markets, demand draws supply in a simple equation, and that all BHP needs to do is to ask its buyers to form an orderly queue.

But, in fact, there is fierce competition for market share in China, and Dines, an excellent Chinese speaker, has travelled constantly through the country, building and developing relationships that have proven a crucial component in the company's stellar growth in recent years.

Dines is also well-known in the wider business community.

He was as a key player in the establishment of the Australian Chamber of Commerce, which he chaired from 1998-2000. And he is a founder governor of the popular Capital Club in Beijing, and has just been appointed team attache for the Australian Olympic team for the 2008 Olympics.

Paul Glasson

GLASSON, a remarkably smart but deliberately low-key business player who has worked in China for more than 10 years, has played a significant role in bringing Chinese investment to Australia in what promises to be just the start of a "go global" wave.

Operating through his own firm, Satori Investments, and as KPMG Australia's eyes and ears as a strategic alliance partner, in China's fast-evolving business world Glasson has built extraordinarily influential networks, Glasson is a fluent Chinese speaker, and he, together with KPMG Australia, have serviced major Chinese companies such as Citic Pacific, MCC, Sinosteel, SIIC, Nanjing Iron and Steel and Huaneng, as well as Australian governments in Victoria and Northern Territory, which are seeking Chinese capital.

Independently from KPMG, Glasson also does a lot of work in China for Kerry Stokes's majority owned company HRL. He was one of the key architects for HRL's deal with Harbin Power, China's largest power station developer, in planning to build a 400MW clean coal gasification plant in Victoria - the pioneer in a promising sphere of co-operation between China and Australia.

Glasson graduated in philosophy from La Trobe University, Melbourne, and he has applied his conceptual skills in bridging the many cultural misunderstandings that too frequently cause promising deals to turn sour.

Andrew 'Jock' McGregor

ANZ's China president, McGregor is a fine example of a loyal company servant who ensures quality is maintained through the one of the most challenging periods for a large corporation - growing its business in a foreign environment, one which is changing at a ferocious pace.

ANZ has recently invested almost $500 million in 20 per cent stakes in the Bank of Tianjin and the Shanghai Rural Commercial Bank.

The Commonwealth Bank has taken a similar route, in Hangzhou and Jinan, but has invested rather less. It is only in recent weeks that ANZ has been overtaken as Australia's top investor in China - with Macquarie spending just a little more, on 31km of the Hua Nan toll road in Guangzhou. McGregor has been ANZ's president in China for almost eight tumultuous years.

The bank had not long before this begun the complex transition from a mere representative office towards offering a full banking service.

A popular figure - not the universal lot of the banker - in the business world in China, McGregor makes full use of his experience, and reserves of equanimity, to keep the company on the march. When he spoke to the huge Australian Institute of Company Directors meeting in Shanghai in May, he had just lost two of his 11 top managers, their packages - already $US100,000 a year, generous enough by Chinese standards - trumped by 50 per cent higher offers from a US bank.

He can count on continuing strong support from head office - his new boss Mike Smith, like John McFarlane before him, came down to Melbourne from Hong Kong.

Peter Osborne

OSBORNE is the ultimate China trade professional. He worked at the Australian business centre in Taiwan, including as senior trade commissioner, for most of the 1990s, then in Shanghai for four years, followed by three and a half years in Hong Kong, in the same role.

With a welcome logic that public service does not always display, early in 2007, Osborne became Austrade's country manager for China, based in Beijing, where he is responsible for the organisation's network of 13 offices.

He is an entertaining and sane speaker and provider of advice on the Chinese business scene. Austrade's core audience is not the big end of town, which today can largely look after itself - most of the time, anyway - even in China. It is the small and medium businesses that, for example, today comprise 80 per cent of ANZ's customers there. ANZ's McGregor says many of them arrive "with a suitcase and a dream", and many are also women.

A big part of Osborne's work involves touring roadshows back in Australia, working to boost the number of companies seeking to sell products or find a niche investment opportunity in China's notoriously difficult markets, especially in the services sector which comprises 70 per cent of the Australian economy.

Osborne also has another career - as a children's author. He has written a book that is selling strongly through Asia, about two children chasing a mysterious dragon through temples in Taiwan, to which they are fortunately often taken by their dad, who, by coincidence, loves Chinese temples - just like Osborne, who is now busy on the sequel.

Alan Reid

MANY Australians doing business in China today speak freely of the debt they owe the advice, example and avuncular encouragement of Alan Reid, who has worked there, and in Hong Kong, since 1985 in government, in a big corporation and now his own advisory business.

A law graduate of the University of Western Australia, he was senior trade commissioner and Minister (Commercial) - the same role as Peter Osborne today - in Beijing from 1992-95, during which time he developed contacts that continue to prove invaluable in his current role.

After that spell with Austrade, he took on the extremely tough assignment of chief operating officer of Foster's in China.

In a rush of blood a few years earlier, the company had set itself up in joint ventures in China, with a "Fosterisation" strategy that proved completely unsustainable.

Reid began the painful process of disentangling corporate wishful thinking from the real world of a hugely competitive brewing industry in China. After three years of this, Reid, another able Chinese speaker, shifted into the business of offering advice, chiefly to multinational corporations moving into China, or wanting to expand there.

The Australian Business

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