If you’re thinking of exporting to China, now is probably a good time to act.
In 2013, the UK provided around £45bn of goods to the country and, following a visit to Britain last year, the Chinese Premier announced his intention to bump that figure up by another £20bn or so by the end of 2015.
“Exporting is important,” said Richard Sice, chief executive of Fast Track China, which helps UK companies take the leap into this often alluring, yet challenging, overseas market.
“Exporting helps companies to increase their market share and profitability, while leading to innovation and business growth. Can a business afford to ignore China? Certainly, it can make an informed decision that it isn’t right for them.
“To ignore it and say it doesn’t have any impact, though, is short-sighted. It’s on its way to becoming the largest importer of goods in the world.”
Indeed China is undergoing a shift from low cost manufacturing country to major consumer society, Mr Sice added.
“There’s a substantial number of very wealthy Chinese people spending money on luxury goods from international brands. But there’s also a growing middle class and they have spending power too.
“They are interested in buying foreign goods and the UK ranks highly as a place of quality and trust.
“And while the focus used to be on manufacturing products in a business-to-business environment, the Chinese now have so much respect for brand UK, they are interested in almost any high quality products the country can provide.”
Plenty of upsides, then, but many businesses here in the North East and elsewhere are still hesitant to make what they see as a risky and potentially hassle-laden move.
On a cultural level, for a start, a perception prevails of China as a restrictive place to do business, exemplified by the so-called Great Firewall on internet services.
Mr Sice, however, speaks fondly of the nation’s tradition of wining and dining business partners extensively - getting to know them as people before committing to work together - as well as the Chinese sense of humour.
There’s no reason, he suggests, that taking the usual precautions when it comes to doing business abroad shouldn’t be sufficient for China as with anywhere else.
IP protection is a genuine concern - especially given China’s unusual ‘first to market’ policy - but getting this sorted while still in the UK should resolve any problems, Richard believes.
When it comes to overcoming language barriers, Fast Track China delivers the goods, providing bilingual teams both in Newcastle and China to support the sales process.
A 4,000 sq metre exhibition centre in Zhengzhou, then, resolves pretty much every other difficulty.
“The showroom area is open 365 days a week,” Mr Sice said. “The traditional model for companies going out there is to attend an exhibition for maybe three or four days.
“That can involve enormous expense in getting the products out there and back in a short space of time, so we wanted to have a facility that allows for a much longer period.”
Fast Track China pays peppercorn rent for the premises and, since the local authority there is keen to support initiatives boosting trade in the Airport Economic Development Zone, the facility comes with a number of other perks.
So-called bonded storage, for example, means companies can store their goods duty-free until the point of sale.
A kind of foreign exchange system also ensures that, even if the buyer does not have access to foreign currency, British exporters can still receive payments in pound stirling.
So far, Fast Track China’s links with the likes of UKTI have allowed it promote such services both here in the UK and through Meet the Buyer events in China, with North East companies among those having already travelled to the country on trade missions.
The Chinese response to the region, meanwhile, has been incredibly warm, fuelling hopes the medium-to-long-term could see Fast China’s approach rolled out on a significantly larger scale.
“Already, we’re in discussions with some other local authorities there because they’ve looked at what’s been happening and think it’s a good idea,” Mr Sice said.
“We signed an MOU in December with another region, known as Hunan. We see ourselves as a kind of complementary service to the likes of UKTI and the China-Britain Business Council.
“The UK has set ambitious targets to increase exports to £1 trillion by 2010 and to achieve that we’ve got to do some innovative thinking.”
That’s something Mr Sice has never been averse to, his wide-ranging career and extensive education suggestive of the most flexible and adaptive business mindsets.
Orginally from London, he was never one for staying put for the sake it, heading to the University of Wales for a degree in History and German.
“It was exciting thinking about working in Europe,” he recalled. “That uncertainty - I didn’t have a strong idea what I wanted to do. It was trial and error.
“While there, I got a scholarship to study at Freiburg University - that was a fun year and one that changed my perspective on life and culture generally.”
During his time there, he also took on a part-time job at the Robert-Koch Klinik.
“They had a German word for my role there, but it doesn’t translate easily into English,” Mr Sice said.
“It’s a bit like a medical orderly. Usually, the people doing that job were medical students looking to get some experience. I just turned up and knocked on the door.
“But ultimately it affected me in terms of looking at values in life. People need help and in a sense a lot of my work has been about helping people since.”
While in Germany, Mr Sice also taught English to a 75-year-old woman - an experience that ultimately guided him towards a PGCE, which he undertook at the University of Leeds.
From here, he pursued a career in teaching languages in London, but realised that in the changing world of education, management skills were becoming more and more prized.
Hence, when he came across an advertisement for a relevant course in Sunderland, he made the move - and fell in love with the region.
“I had a strong impression of how friendly the people were and how beautiful the countryside was,” he said.
“I thought I would like to stay here rather than face the Underground in London again.”
The capital city did attract him back for a while, but, when it came to his next career move - setting up his own marketing consultancy - he returned to the North East.
A theme prevailed - he was working with wide array of companies that were trading internationally - and when he eventually moved on to One North East, it was more of the same, his primary purpose being to support those looking to break into international markets.
Working alongside him was a gentleman called Dr Zhengming Yang, who, with an extensive background in international trade himself, would later bring Mr Sice on board to head his new venture after the RDAs were abolished.
A year in and Mr Sice is satisfied with the momentum Fast Track China, based on the edge of Newcastle, has gathered.
“It’s definitely building,” he said.
“Like anything, there are growing pains - not everything goes to plan and you’ve got to be adaptable - but our story gets stronger as the companies we work with see more evidence of success.
“It gets better and better, but it all takes time.”
Indeed, Fast Track China works with companies on a 12-month contract basis and it’s far to say it sees its commitment as a long-term one.
As Mr Sice put it: “We want to be known as the business to turn to for that practical sales-orientated support to develop your business in China.”