Amsterdam: the first choice for ICBC

For Li Feng, they are a welcome reminder of home. The Beijing native moved to Amsterdam to take up the position of general manager of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) Europe Amsterdam Branch. A steady stream of two-wheelers can be seen passing on the street outside his office. Behind it stretches the green expanse of Museum Square and the cultural treasure-troves that give it its name. “Our neighbours are the Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum, the Concertgebouw and the Rijksmuseum. It would be hard to find a more beautiful location,” says Li. 

But there is much more to the city than just good looks, he notes. “Amsterdam is the constitutional and economic capital of the Netherlands, making it the first choice for international companies considering setting up here. Then there is the highly educated, multilingual workforce, global outlook and enabling business environment.”

ICBC opened its Amsterdam office in 2011, as part of an ambitious strategy to increase its presence on mainland Europe, but its pedigree goes back much further. Founded as a limited company in 1984, ICBC has experienced consistent and substantial growth. In 2006, it was simultaneously listed on the Shanghai and Hong Kong stock exchanges, a listing that at the time was the world’s largest IPO, valued at $21.9 billion. In 2013, it was the first Chinese bank to be ranked number one in The Banker magazine’s Top 1,000 World Banks, overtaking finance giants Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase. The ranking is based on tier 1 capital, a key indicator of a bank’s growth capability and risk tolerance. In the same year, ICBC topped Forbes’ annual ranking of 2,000 most powerful public companies, a position it retained in 2014 and 2015.

By the end of 2014, the bank was the largest in the world by total assets and market capitalisation, with 5.09 million corporate customers and 465 million personal customers around the world. Net profit totalled almost 270 billion RMB. “Our vision is to become the world’s leading bank with the best profitability, performance and prestige,” says Li. “We aim to provide excellent services to our customers and maximum returns to our shareholders, and to be a real contributor to the economy. Since our establishment in Amsterdam, our mission has been to act as a trade bridge between the Netherlands and China. We do this in two main ways. The first is by providing financial support to Dutch companies, including helping them to find a Chinese counterpart and expand their operations in China. The second is by helping Chinese enterprises to do business in the Netherlands by identifying new investments and opportunities.” 

Just as important to ICBC’s commercial strategy is its commitment to society, says Li. It has adopted the Green Credit Guidelines, launched in 2007 by the Chinese government to encourage lending to environmentally sustainable projects, and in 2008 it adopted the Equator Principles of social and environmental standards. Locally, the Amsterdam branch  cooperate withthe Confucius Institute, a non-profit organisation whose stated aim is to promote Chinese language and culture, support local Chinese teaching internationally and facilitate cultural exchanges. 

More recently, the bank has sought to expand its business scope. “We currently provide corporate and investment banking services to 100 local corporate customers and current and savings accounts to 1,400 retail customers,” says Li. “In mainland China, we are the leading issuer of credit and debit cards, but at the end of 2014 there were no Chinese banks in Europe that could issue Chinese cards. In February 2015, we became the first Chinese bank to introduce a Chinese credit card in the Netherlands and the first Chinese bank to introduce a Maestro debit card on the European market. We believe the card will facilitate the daily lives of our local customers.”

“He stresses that compliance with national regulatory requirements is a top priority, but adds that the development of the bank’s business depends heavily on close cooperation with local government. “On our arrival in Amsterdam, we received broad support from government agencies, covering everything from finding a suitable office space to information on the geography, climate and public transport system that makes it that little bit easier to settle in.”

The bank continues to have regular contact with local government, not only for ongoing support but increasingly for joint initiatives. Last October, the City in close cooperation with ICBC organised the Second China Holland Business Summit as part of a trade mission to China. The event, held this time in Beijing following its 2012 debut in Amsterdam, aims to connect Dutch companies with potential trade partners in China. More than 50 Dutch companies participated in the summit and the trade mission as a whole resulted in a total of 12 agreements worth half a billion euros. China and the Netherlands have enjoyed an official friendship for decades, but Li predicts this year could mark the start of a new golden age for the two countries. “An increasing number of Dutch multinationals have significant interests in China. At the same time, lots of Chinese companies are expanding globally and Amsterdam offers attractive prospects. What’s more, the weak euro, low energy prices and preferential tax policies make the Netherlands very appealing for foreign investors.”

Six months into the job, Li happily admits that he still feels like a newcomer. “This is my first position outside China,” he says, but adds that the cultural differences actually helped with the transition. “I had been told about Dutch directness before I arrived but I think it’s very good. If we know what Dutch people are thinking and saying, it’s very easy to communicate and work together. The Dutch are also open to accepting different traditions and cultures so our foreign colleagues are very happy to work with our Chinese colleagues.” 

This openness extends beyond the workplace too, Li has found. “Amsterdam is a very convenient place for Chinese. There are a lot of Asian restaurants and many local people who speak Chinese. And they can use chopsticks very well!” he laughs. “I love my hometown Beijing, but I also love my new hometown Amsterdam. It’s a good place to live.”