The China Experience

Consultant shares the good, the challenging when headed to the Far East for business

The challenges of working in China are numerous. There are cultural issues, language and general communication issues, and even something as basic as dealing with time zone differences. If you travel there as part of business, there are many other challenges related to obtaining the necessary travel documents. However, once you make it through the initial maze of bureaucracy and lack of familiarity, working in China can be a very rewarding experience.

My history in China business dealings is rather unique. While most U.S. businesses are aggressively seeking opportunities to break into a market of over a billion consumers, I was in the unusual situation of being approached by a Chinese company looking for a U.S. partner. During a 2003 trade show in Las Vegas, I was approached by a senior manager with Beijing Bowei Airport Support (BBAS).

BBAS was responsible for the maintenance of the airport, as well as the manufacturing of much of the equipment utilized by the airport. BBAS was also a sister company of the organization that owned the Beijing Capital International Airport, as was Civil Airport Management Company, Ltd. (CAMC), which was in the process of acquiring up to 40 small and medium-sized airports from China’s Central Government. CAMC was seeking a U.S. partner to assist with this acquisition, primarily in evaluating the airports as to the potential each offered. In addition, I was to assist with integrating them into a viable business model upon transfer from the Central Government.

The expediency of my participation in the aviation business world in China was very unique, especially by their standards. While business relationships in the U.S. are often forged over a single meeting or lunch, this is not the case in China. Typical business relationships in China are developed over a long period of meetings and correspondence, sometimes spanning six to 12 months. Even if one is invited for an evening of karaoke with management, that does not mean that a deal will be reached as a result. The building of trust is a long process in the Chinese business culture, which is why my situation was so unique. From the time that I was first approached to the time that I was in Beijing meeting senior management and signing a long-term agreement, was less than two months. I can guarantee that from discussions with other U.S. businessmen that I met there, as well as conversations with U.S. government officials, I was the exception to the rule.

Over the next four years, I was traveling to Beijing on a regular basis. Many of these trips would include day-trips to outlying airports that were being considered by the group, as well as a few overnight trips to other locations. A typical day in Beijing consisted of several meetings with senior management officials, as well as attending weekly staff meetings. The typical day would consist of being picked up at my hotel around 9:00 a.m. and driven to the company’s headquarters. We would meet for a couple of hours, and then have lunch. Lunches were generally long affairs with enough food to feed a high school baseball team . Lunch usually was a mix of business discussions, with some limited personal talk. Very little personal information is offered in business meetings.

Seating at lunches is based upon seniority and a specific “pattern” with guests seated immediately next to the most senior person there. Everyone defers to seniority, with the junior staff generally following a “do not speak unless spoken to” attitude. Anyone lucky enough to attend some type of signing ceremony or management transition celebration (I attended several) will enjoy a continuous celebration that includes a requirement for everyone to propose a toast to the honoree(s).

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