Forkin's China Daily

MD of marketing Derby, John Forkin, travels this week to China as part of a major Midlands trade mission - here is his daily personal blog


Monday, 30th October - Crossing Continents 

This is the week that the Midlands Engine comes alive as 50 business and civic leaders converge on China for a major trade and investment mission...or so we hope.

On Wednesday, representatives from Derby, Birmingham, Nottingham, Wolverhampton, Coventry and others, plus UK government, all meet in Shanghai to collaborate our marketing efforts on an unprecedented scale...more on that on Wednesday.

First, to make the trip more efficient, the delegates are visiting their economic partners' cities - in the case of Derby, Hefei (pronounced Her-Fey) and Derbyshire, Anhui (pronounced Ann-we).

Descending in Hefei today is Team Derbyshire, including leaders from the City and County Councils, the University of Derby, the Chamber of Commerce, Visit Peak District and Derbyshire, the Derby Renaissance Board, various businesses and of course, Marketing Derby.

The journey over is smooth but long, a straight 22 hours, thankfully lacking delays or any sense of drama.

Having just returned from a brief holiday in New York last Friday, I pinch myself with how quickly we can criss-cross the world today.

Travel is the lifeblood of globalisation and part of Derby's economic DNA...being home to the likes of Bombardier, Rolls-Royce and Toyota.

Post-Brexit, there is lots of talk about Britain being 'open for business' - the world appears to think we have shut up shop and so trips like this are going to become commonplace.

Bob Betts, our Chairman, and myself, leave Derby Sunday morning, gliding through Heathrow (more of a hum today than the usual hassle) to Beijing's gleaming new Capital Airport (with the delightfully old school moniker, PEK).

As we come into land I spot the Great Wall, a reminder that China is no Jonny-come-lately, we must treat it with due respect.

We skip through the health-check, immigration, customs, security-check, pick up our baggage loaded with brochures, drop off our baggage loaded with brochures, and finally stumble onto the flight transfer to Hefei.

The plane is packed and we appear to be the only Europeans. We are each given a sweet bread roll to eat.

As we catch a cab into town, I am immediately struck by the sheer scale of the Chinese boom.

Hefei is home to 7 million people and its gateway appears to be mile after mile of tall, thin, regimented, residential apartment blocks. There is chaos in the streets as vehicular battles ensue for road space.

In the midst of this forest, sits our 25-storey hotel, its inimitable Sports Bar packed with fully costumed Chinese people celebrating - yes, you got it - Halloween.

As the jet lag seeps through our veins, we sit up at the bar, first Tsingtao beer and noodle bowl of the week, surrounded by deadly ghouls, wizards and a fire-eater who keeps dropping his flames.

Before sloping off to bed, I reflect on how this is going to be an enlightening glimpse into how the world is shaping up for the 21st century...

Tuesday, 1st November - Building Blocks

Today is Derby and Derbyshire, D2, Day, in Hefei and Anhui.

Today, we find out if our efforts have won over the respect of our Chinese hosts and, if that is the case,  whether doors will soon be opened to new contacts.

Most of our 25 strong D2 delegation rock up to breakfast sharing various tales of jet-lagged sleep and insomnia patterns.

Breakfast in China can be a lavish affair. The food choice is truly global with Chinese nationals focused on what, to western eyes, looks suspiciously like dinner-dumplings and rice.

Team D2 tend to stick to cereal, pastries and toast. I find an omelette station with a cheery chef offering a bespoke service - I'll save the dumplings experience until later.

We kick off bright and bushy with a team briefing held in the lobby at 8.15. At this stage, team D2 looks shiny, spick and span - ready for business.

We are taken in quick succession to two locations - an innovation centre and car factory.

The journey is a genuine assault on the senses - our bus weaving through chaotic traffic, drowning in a cacophony of hooting. The cars appear to push and shove each other without actually touching.

It seems most of Hefei's 7 million people have somewhere else to be and we are caught in the middle.

These opening visits are clearly taken as an opportunity by our hosts to showcase their superstar projects.

We do exactly the same in Derby - show our best to impress before getting down to business.

Of course, being China, the main challenge is fully conceptualising the sheer scale of projects. For example, the planned Economic and Technological Development Area looks bigger than the city of Derby.

Later we hear that in 2015 the government has set a target for 500 new airports to be built by 2020. We visit the one planned for Hefei which will be ready for the end of 2017! It's all a bit mind-blowing and I reflect on the 50-year Heathrow debate back home.

Two keynote civic occasions are held over lunch and dinner - one with the City and one with the Province.

Each follows the same pattern, a formal set-piece exchange of diplomatic pleasantries, followed by a banquet where guests are furnished with a melange of tasters. The fun is trying to figure out what you are actually eating. I ponder over a "steamed weever".

The formalities go well. Hefei is led by the Mayor and Anhui by the Governor, both supported by massive senior teams. The City is led by Ranjit Banwait and County by Anne Western. Ranjit scores a blinder when he quotes Confucius - I can see this gets approval from our hosts. An agreement is signed, everyone claps and a hundred photos taken.

Whilst feeling staid to our western sensibilities, the ceremony and its subtle messaging is central to Chinese business. The relationship comes first and we know this is a step we cannot skip.

The day ends on a high, it seems we have been promoted and can now build our ambitions from a new, higher, platform for cooperation.

Now, the hard work starts...but first we retire after a 14 hour day to renew our individual insomnia battles...



Wednesday, 2nd November – Shanghai Surprises 

Today has been a day of eye-openers, seeing China at its brilliant best and at its most frustrating.

Essentially it is transfer day, as following yesterday's ceremonies with Hefei & Anhui, the D2 delegation split up for various tailored meetings before heading off to join up with other Midland cities in Shanghai. 

Tomorrow the Midlands Engine takes centre stage at a major investment conference, the first attempt at putting forward a joined-up message to investors. 

Taking the bullet train for the 300-mile trip from Hefei to Shanghai was nothing short of an astonishing experience. Over the past few years China has introduced an extensive High Speed rail system serviced by sleek white modern trains that purr into massive designer stations, more akin to airports.

The distance we travelled is roughly that of Derby to Edinburgh, but the similarity ends there. Whilst the UK service can deliver you in 4 hours and 30 mins, China Rail knocks it off in less than 3 hours. The speedometer in each carriage showed 320 km per hour as being our top speed.

On Friday I’ll be catching the Maglev to Shanghai, travelling at 400km/h. To put this in perspective, if the train between Derby and London travelled at this speed, it would take 25 minutes.

The downside of rapid growth is that almost of all the 300-mile journey between Hefei and Shanghai was built-up, mile upon mile of apartment blocks and hundreds of cranes still building with little consideration for design. 

Ironically, although Shanghai parades itself as a city of innovation, it also brings with it a sharp reminder of the fact that we are in a one party state with desire for control. This leads to Google, Twitter, Facebook and Gmail all being blocked. 

Having said that one cannot be but impressed by the city’s stunning skyline with skyscrapers, illuminated by neon.

Thursday, 3rd November – Midlands Message

Today over 500 people packed into a large conference room in the Pudong area of Shanghai, which can best be compared to Canary Wharf. 

Organised by the China-Britain Business Council, the theme of the day is the opportunities available for investment, in other words Chinese investors considering the UK. The Midlands Engine is a key sponsor and the day provides an opportunity to catch up with colleagues from Birmingham, Nottingham and Wolverhampton, amongst others.

The main morning session is focused on the Midlands Engine and Patrick Horgan, Regional Director North-East Asia for Rolls-Royce, gives an excellent endorsement as to why investors should look at the Midlands, and in particular, Derby.

I’m especially pleased when he says that Rolls-Royce is defined by Derby, which itself was a cradle for the industrial revolution.

The conference provides a genuine attempt from the Midlands to show how we can collaborate for the greater good, remembering that the Northern Powerhouse made its move on China over a year ago. 

It’s too early to judge the success of this initiative but I believe that Midlands made a strong pitch to an important group, who will spread the word over the coming months.

The Derby City Centre Masterplan and Infinity Park Derby both feature in a mandarin version of the Midlands pitch book. 

The day ended with a reception hosted by the British Consul in his downtown apartment. This gave delegates an opportunity to experience the Shanghai rush hour as it took 2 hours for the bus to travel a mere 5 miles. I’ll probably be more tolerant of my daily “traffic jam” on Burton road in the future…



Friday, 4th November – Lessons Learnt

This is my final blog as I depart China for the long trip back home.

Sitting in the shiny new Shanghai Pudong airport I reflect on five key points from the week.

1) China – The country is home to 1.5 billion people and is becoming the world’s largest economy and the world’s largest investor. 
In other words, this is a place with whom we have to do business, and following the visit of President Xi to the UK last year, the Chinese have referred to their relations with Britain as the “Golden Era”.

2) UK – Yes, we are a small country in comparison and yes, post-Brexit we will need to attract more trade and investment to at least make up whatever we lose from the EU.

Talking to Chinese investors and officials there is a concern about the uncertainty over the UK’s economy during this period of transition, expressed by one as “we like to see the UK as a key to the EU.” However, I picked up a genuine desire to do business with Britain based on our heritage, education system, security and legal framework.  

3) Hefei and Anhui – Although both city and province are larger than Derby and Derbyshire the simple fact is that we did meet the top brass, i.e. the mayor of Hefei and the governor of Anhui. Hefei is one of the world’s top 20 growing cities and although they, and we, may be seen as being late to the table, it could prove we are at the right place at the right time.

4) Derby and Derbyshire – We sent a strong team and put our best foot forward and in truth if the feedback from our Chinese hosts is anything to go by, we played a blinder. Be under no illusion, to have the leadership of the city council, county council, the university and business bodies all give up their valuable time to travel half-way across the world gets noticed, and is appreciated in China. Our challenge now is to move towards delivery and we are actively considering moving an economic ambassador in China to make this happen.

5) Midlands Engine – My feeling is that collaboration on a trans-regional level makes perfect sense, especially on larger strategic platforms, such as the China-Britain Business Council Outbound Conference. We know that we are here to promote our own areas, but we are mature enough to understand that the common good is the best way of achieving this. We will soon be going as one team to MIPIM in Cannes, which is a complete reversal to previous years. It was disappointing that the Secretary of State did not make the visit and we will be seeking evidence that the Government is serious in backing an initiative that makes sense to local government and businesses. 

Boarding has been called so time to sign off…