Northern Ireland firms prosper in China

Updated: 2015-05-22 08:06

By Wang Mingjie(China Daily Europe)

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The industrialized member of the United Kingdom benefits from a complementary relationship with China

Companies based in Northern Ireland are doing more and more business with China as the benefits of economic ties with the Asian giant are felt across much of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland is well positioned for such growth, with its long industrial heritage and particular strengths in machinery and transport equipment, food and beverage, and chemicals and related products, says Peter Curran, Asia trade territory manager at Invest Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland firms prosper in China

Engineers working in Andor Technology, which makes digital cameras for scientific use. Photos provided to China Daily

Northern Ireland makes one in three of the world's aircraft seats, and one in five computer drives has a part created there. It also has one of Europe's youngest populations, with 60 percent under the age of 40.

Jonathan Bell, Northern Ireland's minister of enterprise, trade and investment, says progress has been rapid.

"If we take a look at just trade and exporting alone, we had a good year in 2010/2011. We exported 112 million pounds ($175 million; 155 million euros) worth of goods to China.

"I'm delighted to say year-on-year from that point we've increased that and, in 2013/2014, we exported 220 million pounds worth of goods into China."

Northern Ireland firms prosper in China
Vicky Kell, director of trade at Invest Northern Ireland

Bell, who was elevated to minister this month, was speaking in late 2014, when he told the radio news program Good Morning Ulster that China would open a consulate in Belfast, its first in Northern Ireland. Bell was junior minister at the time.

Vicky Kell, director of trade at Invest Northern Ireland, says: "Links with China are growing fast in many sectors. What we try to do is identify what the opportunities are, what a good fit is with our areas of expertise, and areas we should be putting a focus in the market on.

"The fact we have been working on China for a long period and have continued to keep the focus on China I think demonstrates the potential we see." Kell's agency helps businesses to compete internationally and helps attract new investment.

One company that is prospering in China is Andor Technology Ltd, a fast-growing firm that makes high performance digital cameras for scientific use. The Belfast-based company, which operates at the high-value end of its market, employs over 400 people in 16 offices worldwide and distributes its products to 10,000 customers in 55 countries.

The company has been in China for over 15 years and maintains strong ties to academics, especially those returning to China from abroad to set up and run research facilities and labs.

Andor's customers are found in every major institute in China, including the China National Academy of Sciences, Tsinghua University and institutes from Shenyang in the north to Shenzhen in the south.

Many joint projects have been formulated with Chinese universities and institutes, including quantum communications with Hefei University, life sciences with the China National Academy of Science, and DNA research with the Institute of Genomics.

Northern Ireland firms prosper in China
David Simms, Yelo's sales and marketing director

The increasingly close relationship between China and the UK has contributed to the success of Andor in China.

Andrew Dennis, director of product management at Andor Technology, says: "We have used the strong ties that the UK has with China in research on the heels of a successful trip from our Prime Minister David Cameron to promote joint research in everything from astronomy, to life sciences, to high tech manufacturing that combines and leverages China's heavy investment in basic science research."

This year alone, the company has expanded its technical staff by 20 percent and is committed to the investment in China research partnerships and programs, Dennis says.

Another Northern Irish company that is enjoying considerable success in China is RP Group (formerly known as Rubber & Plastic Products).

RP Group is a family-owned firm, based in Belfast for almost 50 years, with global business exposure. The company sells a range of industrial products to manufacturers, such as diesel generator sets, and materials handling and screening and crushing equipment.

"Our company's first foray into China was over 10 years ago, when RP began to source products for supply to local customers requiring competitive prices, but coupled with the quality they knew we could deliver," says Steven Allen, managing director of the RP Group.

The company's relations and reputation developed over more than 30 years with Caterpillar, the world's leading manufacturer of construction equipment, has allowed RP to expand its business with the Caterpillar Electrical Power Division, and RP now supplies Caterpillar's Asia Power Systems facility in Tianjin, China.

Forty percent of RP's exports go to China, and the Chinese market accounts for 10 percent of the company's turnover, Allen says.

"Having experience in China has given us the confidence to export to countries like Nigeria. We can see what the benefits are and we know what the pitfalls are. Because of that I think we are in much better position to work on our exports market. That's what we have done and that's what we want to grow," he adds.

Allen says he thinks RP's success in China can be attributed in part to the company being very customer-focused. "We keep regular contact with APS and their suppliers in China and almost every eight weeks or so, there will be someone from the company traveling to China," says Allen.

Another company well on its way to creating a strong presence in China is Yelo, based in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. Yelo manufactures automated laser-testing equipment for the electronics market, with customers ranging from large multinational corporations to smaller specialist companies.

David Simms, Yelo's sales and marketing director, says success in China takes time.

"Around 2012 we started seriously looking at how we were going to do business in China. Initially we did a market research analysis to look at where in China these companies exist. For our industry, number one would probably be Shenzhen, number two Shanghai, and number three Beijing," Simms says.

Simms thought Yelo needed to get out and meet those companies. With the help of Invest Northern Ireland, Yelo took part in two major trade shows in the Chinese market, which resulted in the appointment of a new distributor and produced contacts that led directly to new clients in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, says Simms.

Having Chinese-speaking distributors and support engineers gives the company the capability to meet with and support customers in China, he says.

"Around 50 percent of our company sales come from the Chinese market and we have grown sales in China from about 900,000 pounds to 3 million pounds in about four years."

"The sales surge in the Chinese market is because Chinese manufacturers now have started to sell both internationally and nationally, whereas before they would have been mainly manufacturing for the Chinese market. As they are now targeting global markets, they want better equipment to ensure better quality, and hence they consider us rather than get components made locally," Simms adds.

"By working with numerous different customers, we get a considerable amount of experience, so they are really buying our experience as well as our equipment. They are buying a relationship with us."

Another growing link between Northern Ireland and China is education. Currently 660 Chinese students are enrolled in Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University - the highest number of any nation outside of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. In partnership with Hubei Normal University in China, Ulster University also offers joint degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral levels.

The Confucius Institute at Ulster University was launched in 2012 as a partnership between Ulster University and Zhejiang University of Media and Communications in Hangzhou, in southeastern China.

"The institute's activity mainly focuses on the development of Chinese language teaching at all levels of the educational system," says Liu Yan, director of the Confucius Institute at Ulster University. "We now have 28 teachers scattered across 122 schools, teaching Mandarin to over 6,000 children."

The demand for Mandarin teachers in Northern Ireland is increasing and this year the institute will need another 18 teachers, says Liu.

The institute also functions as a focal point for China-related activities across Northern Ireland, contributing to the forging of business, professional and cultural connections between China and Northern Ireland.

As part of China's 2014 National Day celebration, the institute set up business seminars at government offices, university campuses and schools, which received a great response, Liu says.

The institute has also organized seminars to help trade delegations from Northern Ireland to improve their cultural awareness before attending fairs in China.

Daniel Assab contributed to the story.

( China Daily European Weekly 05/22/2015 page14)