Amsterdam: a fantastic 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 Museumplein and the cultural treasure-troves that give it its name. “Our neighbours are the Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum, the Royal 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.”

Growing into Europe from a major financial hub

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.

“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.” 

Expanding business scope

More recently, the bank has sought to expand its business scope. “We currently provide corporate and investment banking services to more than 100 local corporate customers and current and savings accounts to more than 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.”

Settling into life in the Netherlands

When he was just six months into the job, Li happily admitted that he still felt 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.”