First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Marie-Charlotte Pezé

Amsterdam, the European gateway

When the head office of China Construction Bank (CCB) in Beijing set its sights on Europe, Li Xiang packed up her life and made the leap with her family to helm the Amsterdam office. “We have a presence in 29 countries, and it was important to provide services to our clients here with a physical office.”

In 63 years, CCB has grown from a small state-owned bank specialising in construction projects to one of the ‘Chinese big four banks’ – a colossal financial institution with almost three-trillion euros in assets. Catering to the financial needs of large- and medium-sized Chinese companies based in Europe, as well as multinational European companies based in China, is a priority – especially under the national ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative.

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, Amsterdam’s place on the European financial scene can only grow more prominent. As Xiang emphasises, “The Netherlands is known as the European gateway.” The Dutch mastery of the English language makes it a prime location for international dealings, she adds, and “Amsterdam has a superior network to the rest of the world. The logistics are just perfect,” which is important for a country that is China’s second largest trade partner in Europe, where the past ten years have seen a dramatic increase in deals in such domains as telecommunications, transportation, insurance, ICT services and more.

The bank chose beautiful modern offices on a high floor that offers sprawling views over the Zuidas business district. The area is strategic – a beehive of large corporations and financial institutions (such as CCB and Google) that’s a short seven-minute train ride from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol

A close-knit network

Xiang says she is truly grateful to the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency (NFIA) and amsterdam inbusiness for their invaluable assistance. “Not only did they go above and beyond to help us find this great location, they also assisted in procuring visas for our employees. They continue to connect us to local organisations. They are not only incredibly professional and efficient, they really made us feel welcome,” gushes Xiang.

Amsterdam’s relative small size allows for a tight network and close collaboration – not only with local institutions such as ING and ABN AMRO, but also with the 500 Chinese companies present in the Netherlands, with whom dialogue is facilitated by organisations such as the Association of Chinese Investment Enterprises in the Netherlands (Chinese link).

As for the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), Xiang insists that their relationship is one of mutually beneficial coexistence: “We’re very good friends with ICBC. We live in the same community in Amstelveen, and our children attend the same international school! They came to Amsterdam before us, and we have a lot to learn from them.”

In the coming months, CCB will be implementing a state-of-the-art global operating system which will integrate cash management and online banking. They’re also establishing the welfare scheme for their employees – something that is uncommon in China but fits CCB’s spirit of integration with Dutch mentalities.

The Dutch lifestyle: tolerance, environment and family

“People here have strong values when it comes to tolerance, welfare and the environment,” admires Xiang. In this spirit, CCB not only recycle and greatly limit their car usage, they also promote a dialogue between China and Dutch experts regarding food, air and water safety.

As for the infamous Dutch directness, Xiang finds that it’s efficient: “At first it’s surprising, but their frankness allows you to know what they think and want, which is very practical in business.”

What really helps the nine Chinese staff members of CCB Amsterdam feel more at home – in addition to dining at the Sea Palace Restaurant, which Xiang says serves authentic Cantonese cuisine – is regularly going out with their Dutch colleagues at the end of the day. “The Dutch care about their personal lives very much; it’s funny when suddenly, at 5PM, they switch from their professional to their personal face!”

It’s a new life rhythm for Xiang, who is sometimes worried her daughter may have trouble re-adapting to a more rigid school schedule when they return to China. “I really enjoy my life here. I’ve learned a lot about business but especially about the Dutch lifestyle – they cherish their health, physical activity, their family life. It feels very balanced.”

For more information on China's relationship with Amsterdam – including the city's facilities for Chinese expats – visit our China Desk page.