No secret, just good business practice... and patience
Our first ever SME Spotlight features a small, family-owned engineering manufacturer from my home town in West Yorkshire - Arthur Jackson & Co Ltd. Jacksons was founded more than 60 years ago, and they make high precision patterns, dies and other types of tooling in metal, resin and wood. Custom made for some of the world's biggest brands, these are used to produce items as diverse as high-speed turbos for diesel engines and papier-mâché cup holders for fast food outlets.
Sitting in his office I ask Andrew Jackson (managing director), how did they come to be exporting to China? He replies by saying that, in a sense, China came looking for them. It began when a Chinese engineer (Dr Zhu Qiang) who worked for one of their customers in the UK, and whom he knew, moved back to China in 2008 to become a deputy director at the Beijing General Research Institute Non-ferrous Metals (GRINM). At that time Jackson's subsidiary in Denver, Colorado, was short of orders, and struggling. The answer? – Dr Zhu proposed that GRINM buy the Denver operation, and move it to Beijing. Jacksons was asked to help set things up there. The relationship grew and after a few years resulted in some good sales to Beijing and elsewhere, including a recent tooling order for the production of turbos for ABB. In spite of these successes, Jacksons don't have a representative in China – they don’t feel that one is needed.
So what does Andrew Jackson think makes Chinese business culture unique, if anything? His reply – "nothing, it's just doing business. What matters is good business practice. Plus time – the time it takes to talk about things. In the West it might just take a couple of months to decide something, but with China you may need to spend much longer discussing things with a client, while they consider making changes and adjustments". There's no secret to success when working with Chinese customers and partners, he says, just "patience and good business practice. Nothing quick".
It's clear from the way he talks that Jacksons have really liked working with China - "I've found them very trustworthy, and trusting of us too". The only thing he wishes he'd realised in advance was "we could have been less suspicious of China’s business culture in general”.
That's great to hear - I like positive stories like this one. But I think that one reason things have worked out so well is that this company began with an existing trust-relationship, forged over a number of years before Mr Zhu returned to China. Jackson agrees, "Our situation was unusual, and we couldn't have planned it". We conclude with a tour of the factory – very enjoyable for me!
So, was this company's experience unusual? Is it possible to plan for relationships like theirs? I suspect that quite a lot of SMEs find their way into China through unexpected routes and relationships. And I think that it's possible work on building good relationships for the long term. British SMEs who want to connect with China in the future can try to build links in the present through all sorts of creative means: paying attention to Chinese employees in their own and other companies, offering research projects to Chinese students based in nearby universities, or even befriending them through a program like HOST. At very least these will help our understanding of China, and may even lead to concrete business opportunities in the future.
My thanks to Arthur Jackson & Co Ltd for their welcome. You can find them at www.ajack.co.uk
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