Securing major investment in Sheffield brings plenty of challenges, from getting the right people on board to signing the best deal for the city.
But these challenges get significantly bigger when the deal is done across cultural, geographical and political borders.
For Sheffield Council leader Julie Dore, who led negotiations on a 60-year deal with Chinese firm Sichuan Guodong Construction Company, it was an entirely new experience.
“We previously did very little business with China,” said Coun Dore. “We got introduced originally through (Sheffield United co-owner) Kevin McCabe, both in his role with the football club and as a property developer.
“I understood it was very formal in China. The business culture in Britain tends to be done through connections, on the golf course or at dinners and conferences.
“In China it’s quite different. It’s more based on formal introductions.”
Coun Dore first visited Chengdu, where Sichuan Guodong is based, for a sister city convention in 2012.
“She was impressed by the respect she was shown.
“To get into business you often need introductions by politicians in China, so as a politician they were very respectful and courteous towards me,” said Coun Dore.
“Their culture is around status. If you are a politician you are a very well-respected person.
“So that was a surprise, being seen as the most proper and important person in the room.”
That visit laid the foundations for Sheffield’s relationship with China, and informal discussions between the council and the Chengdu government continued.
Another meeting in Chengdu was set in October last year, and deputy leader Leigh Bramall took the lead while Coun Dore accompanied the country’s chancellor at the time, George Osborne, on his own visit.
The council leader said it was important for her to be there with the chancellor, given her existing relationship with Chengdu officials.
“It would have been disrespectful to Chengdu for me not to be there,” she added. “And the chancellor’s office realised that Sheffield was a brand out there and the relationship was very well-honed and long-term.
“When the chancellor went to meet the mayor or governors he took me with him.”
The political relationships built in Chengdu are based on respect. But the relationship with Sichuan Guodong chairman and president Wang Chunming, while also respectful, has become a friendship.
Coun Dore said: “When he knew we were coming in June he was very excited about it. He wanted not just to sign the deal but to show us his city – and by golly he did.”
Mr Wang took the Sheffield delegation on a tour of Chengdu and the surrounding area. They saw the most modern, cosmopolitan aspects of a growing city, but also had lunch in a rural Chinese village and spent time at a panda sanctuary.
In four days the businessman’s enthusiasm for the deal did not wear off.
“You could tell after the signing he was so excited, going round toasting everyone,” said Coun Dore.
“We have become friends. For me, I needed to know the person that Sheffield was doing a deal with. I needed to believe that he was doing it for the right reasons. I wanted to understand his own values and his background.”
Chinese investment still raises questions for many, with discussions focussing on human rights and the environment. These issues were not off limits.
Coun Dore said: “I found the Chinese very welcoming, very warm, very open. I would expect them to be more guarded about their backgrounds and personal circumstances.
“Mr Wang is very knowledgeable about politics. He fundamentally believes in democracy and is pleased that China is becoming more open to the world.
“In his speech following the deal he said everything I was going to say about Sheffield. He knew about HS2 and the retail quarter. He needed to know Sheffield was the right place to invest in.
“He acknowledged that British democracy is seen as the shining light.
“Now China has opened up more to global capitalism and choice. He was quite candid.
“That’s why they are investing. It’s as much about that as an opportunity to make money.”
The growing friendship between the two cities extends to a personal level, with Coun Dore in contact with some of her Chengdu government counterparts on a regular basis. She was even asked to name an officer’s baby – choosing Elizabeth for a girl or Charles for a boy.
The deal with Sichuan Guodong will bring hundreds of millions of pounds into Sheffield, with a promise of £220million in the first three years alone.
But Coun Dore hopes the relationship will spread further.
Chinese involvement in Sheffield is already growing, with work on the new Chinatown in London Road progressing well, the University of Sheffield in China this week, and a sponsorship deal struck with Sheffield United.
Coun Dore said: “We are talking to Chengdu about a school project and a business-to-business project in the high-tech sector. We are trying to encourage more development.
“I think we should have a Sheffield office in Chengdu, but that needs Government funding. It would be great for businesses and our city region but it also gives the Government a route into Chengdu.
“They are building a school in Chengdu called Sheffield School. I want to see how we can benefit from that.
“Always it has to benefit both cities. It has to be give and take.”
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