“We’re trying to change people’s ideas of Chinese companies,” says Jiangfeng Zhi, president of the security camera firm Hikvision Europe. “We want them to know that we’re not just about low prices, but also have quality of technology and service, and now the market is starting to recognise that about Hikvision.” Established in China in 2001, the firm opened its first office in Europe over five years ago and has been having a very direct impact on ideas about Chinese companies ever since, with a string of iconic contracts across the continent. Hikvision provides security systems for the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Rome and Milan Malpensa airports, the Brussels public transport network and the Tesco supermarket chain in the UK.
And business is growing fast. Last year saw a 93% rise in turnover on the year before, and March 2014 matched the turnover for the whole of 2009. The decision to come to Europe was driven in part by events in China. After the country’s remarkable GDP growth of the last 20 years, signs were developing that the 8% annual growth the economy had grown so used to seeing might slowly ease. It seemed a good time to expand overseas efforts, and that expansion is gathering pace. From the European HQ in Hoofddorp, just outside Amsterdam, Hikvision added an office in Italy in 2012, France and Spain in 2013, and Poland and the UK in 2014.
Hikvision’s first European office was originally in Belgium, as the company investigated where to set up permanently. “We thought we better switch to the Netherlands,” says Zhi. “In this country, they are business oriented. All the policies for international businesses are reasonable. For example, they accept English documents. In other countries, like France, you must have documents in the local language, and for most Chinese people’s education in school, the second language is English. If you ask me the best country to set up in Europe, I would say the Netherlands. It is very well-organised for business. If we talk about how Dutch people do business, I have to say it’s very professional. You can rely on them, because the rules and regulations are fair and mutual.”
Zhi himself has a wealth of European experience, having studied at Glasgow’s Strathclyde University, and has been with Hikvision in Europe since day one. “In the beginning, there were only six people, including me,” he says. Now, Hikvision has 92 staff at subsidiaries across the continent, of which 27 are in the Amsterdam head office. Finding talent here has not been a problem, and around half the HQ staff are locally hired. “The good thing here is everyone speaks English, even the warehouse man. And because our hotline support is here, it’s easy to find people who speak three or four languages. In other countries that’s not possible. We have eight nations here, all working together. That is a unique thing that you only find in the Netherlands,” says Zhi.
Most of the technical staff come from the firm’s vast research and development operation in China, which employs around 2,000 people. Bringing the required Chinese staff over has been equally straightforward. “For work permits, the Netherlands is better than other countries. When we set up in France, our applications were declined. We invested in France, hired 12 people and only applied for one engineer to come over for R&D and the government denied it,” he says.
“Here, just follow the rules, and if everything is reasonable you get the visa. We got a lot of support from the city. They have someone who speaks Chinese and he helped us to apply for the work permits. We were very surprised and happy. The only government departments that helped us were in the Netherlands. Our experience in Italy, France, Spain, Poland – I believe they have similar departments – was that they didn’t contact us.”
Following his own experience of setting up a company here, Zhi has some clear advice for other Chinese firms looking at Western Europe. “They need to be ready for a long-term operation. The planning is different here. In China, people can build a four-star hotel in one week from an empty piece of ground, but here things are very well planned,” he says. “So when people come from China to Europe, they have to be ready to work in a European way.”
Hikvision has certainly adapted. Strolling around the firm’s well-stocked warehouse, Zhi explains the company’s plans for growth over the coming years. “Next year we move to a new logistics centre of 4,000 square metres, with 2,000 square metres of office. It’s very close to the airport, so will be very convenient. We want to have a big sign, so people can see our name when their planes take off,” he says with a grin.
“We will hire more and more local people, and we may open a small research and development centre here to give more support to our subsidiaries. So the localisation will be even stronger.” So the plan is to stay a while? “The Netherlands has very beautiful weather. It is a very beautiful country. And for the business part, it is the best country in Europe,” he says.
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