Foreign executives continue to see opportunities in China

November 6, 2013 | China Daily

By SHI JING

Even though many multinational companies are focusing on localization and are paying executives who work overseas the same as those who work at home, executives' interest in moving to China hasn't waned.

Arpin International Group, a US company specializing in moving household goods both domestically and internationally, is in an excellent position to witness the growing interest. The group's sales in China doubled in 2012 and are continuing to grow in 2013.

"Of course, we have seen that more overseas executives are willing to move to China," said Michael Johnsen, Arpin's vice-president of business development.

Arsheya Devitre, 40, a senior manager in Shanghai working for the New Hampshire-based wastewater-management company Wheelabrator Technologies Inc, is one of Arpin's customers.

Born in the United States, Devitre grew up in Hong Kong, studied at Nanjing University in the early 1990s and worked in the late 1990s in Beijing, where she met her husband, Alok Somani.

"Living in Beijing then was wonderful as everything was close by. Now it's crowded, and buildings are everywhere," said Somani, 48.

"But when you are younger, it doesn't really matter. We would bike to work and go camping on the Great Wall. It was just a fun time," she said.

Nowadays, the poor air quality in Beijing and some cities has become a problem, motivating some expatriates to leave Beijing.

But they still see China as an attractive place to work and live overall.

Robert Parkinson, managing director of RMG Business Consulting (Beijing), said the pollution has never really been a big deal for him. Since arriving in China, he has quit smoking.

"I think cigarettes are considerably worse for your health than Beijing's air problems," he said.

"I personally prefer Beijing. It is more ‘real China' for me. I have made a lot of friends here over the years, and the atmosphere is more like a ‘big village' than Shanghai's is.

"I also travel to Shanghai regularly for business, and find it can sometimes be too much fun. My wife and I worry that if I lived there, I would be partying too much," he said.

David Nagy, managing director for China at the Chicago-based executive search firm DHR International, said his company has noticed that overseas executives are more willing to work in China nowadays because the Chinese economy is still growing while the recovery in the US is still fragile and Europe is still in a recession.

Also, with the Chinese market growing, companies are investing here to capture growth opportunities, so global executives are attracted to challenging and rewarding career opportunities that are forward-looking, he added.

The Ministry of Public Security said in April 2012 that the number of expats entering China has grown by an average 10 percent annually since 2000.

"In general, we are seeing that overseas executives are more open to spending longer periods of time on assignment in China compared with several years ago, when many rotated in and out on two-to-three-year assignments," Nagy said. "Many foreign executives view it as an opportunity to expose their children to living in an international environment."

Moving to Shanghai

But the concern of air quality, together with other environmental problems, did have some bearing on foreigners' cities of choice, as some of them moved from Beijing to Shanghai.

Devitre and Somani are a typical example.

After two years in Beijing, they went back to the US. However, they came back to China around four years ago, by which time their boy-and-girl twins were only 2 years old.

When they made the decision to come back to China, Somani's parents said simply, "Don't go".

"I love Beijing because I have good memories there. But life is now easier in Shanghai. And the air quality matters a lot because we have little children," Devitre said.

"Each time I come, I have had tougher requirements as to how developed I want it to be. Shanghai has suited my needs in many different ways."

Beijing saw more than half the days in October polluted, according to the Beijing Municipal Environmental Monitoring Center. It was worse in September, with only six pollution-free days.

On the other hand, Shanghai ranked 10th in terms of air quality among all 74 monitored cities in September. No day had severe pollution in Shanghai in the first six months.

When staying in Shanghai these days, they talked from time to time whether Devitre's company needs her to go back to the States, and whether the family will stay or not. The answer is they would like to stay here.

"We have comfort in air quality," she laughed.

Nagy of DHR International said Shanghai is usually the first choice. "Beijing was popular, but recent problems with air quality have made it less attractive, especially to executives with young children," he said.

Jonathan Edwards, a partner with Antal International Business Consulting (Beijing) Company Ltd, is now based in Shanghai. When asked about where he would go if he's given the chance to choose, he said he wouldn't go to Beijing because concern about the environment is always his top priority.