By Stan Ashbee
Sunny South News
A Lethbridge County delegation is off to China this month to promote the county’s bounty and form long-lasting relationships. The county’s Economic Development Officer Martin Ebel is one of five heading to China this week. Ebel recently attended a Global Ready — China seminar put on by Travel Alberta to ready himself for the trip.
“It was just talking about what’s happening in China right now. The country is evolving so rapidly and there’s sort of a generational change. Some of the things we’ve known about China for the past are kind of held true, those are changing very rapidly and China’s definitely trying to engage more with the world, the younger generation especially. There’s going to be opportunities there for increased trade and for increased cultural exchanges. Their tourism is about to boom. The number of Chinese people travelling overseas is just exploding. A lot of that is within Asia, to be fair. But, Canada has had most favourite nation status since 2010 for trade and cultural exchange. Next year in 2018 in China, Canada is the official travel destination, so it will be heavily promoted. I think we are going to see a lot more China on this side of the ocean, but it’s a two-way relationship,” said Ebel.
Relationships are very important to the county’s friends in China.
“Here, you do a business deal, I see company X and they have a product I like and I want to sell it or I think we’re going to use it, so I go to them and we negotiate a price, here’s the terms of delivery and sign on the dotted line and we’re done. Yes, it happens in China, but what they prefer, especially from government to government is — ‘Let me get to know you and let me get to understand who you are and what are you guys all about and who are your people and let us get to know them. Once we feel we know you and we understand what you’re about and understand what you want to do with us, then we’re ready to do business,’” he explained.
Investment is key — if you want to do business in China, “You can’t just hop on a plane with a bunch of contracts, have a bunch of meetings, get those contracts signed and then suddenly I’m shipping widgets to China. It generally doesn’t work that way. It’s usually more about I have to go to China, speak with these people, tell them a little bit about what we do, they’re going to come over here and we’ll take them around, tour them and show them or factories and show them the city and everything. And, maybe we’ll have a couple of visits like that on both sides. Then, when they’ve kind of reached their comfort level, then it’s like OK, let’s sit down and let’s talk about can you send us 100,000 head of beef a year, but you just don’t show up with a contract and say sign this and we’ll send you our beef,” Ebel added.
In China, Ebel noted, what allows businesses to do business is generally government permission.
“You kind of have to work on several levels. Businesses can do business with each other, but it really helps if the government has said ‘Oh, the business is located in Lethbridge County. We have a great relationship with Lethbridge County, so go ahead and do business,’ as opposed to ‘we don’t know Lethbridge County.’”
“We’re not used to that here, businesses usually do what they want,” he said, plus it’s a little bit harder to do business in China, as it is a communist government and they do control business a lot more.
Ebel said the county and the City of Lethbridge are trying to establish a relationship with China and get the connections and let China know the county and city are interested in doing business and form a relationship.
“A real genuine relationship beyond just a sign on the wall or an item in a trophy case,” he said.
This way, Ebel pointed out, when the area’s companies want to sell beef, canola, wheat or value-added agricultural products, the businesses in China might say they know Lethbridge County and they’ve toured around the area and they’ve seen the feedlots and they’ve seen the care people take or have seen the fields.
Another thing the county is trying to do, according to Ebel, is the two Canadian products the Chinese value especially is food and medical products.
Ebel said the county is all about agriculture and agri-food.
“In China, food quality and food safety is a huge issue,” he said. “When food comes from Canada, it’s genuinely from Canada because of our high standards and food safety and food inspection,” he added.
There’s 1.4 billion Chinese people, Ebel said.
“That’s a lot of mouths to feed and they’re looking for safe, secure and high quality food. That’s what we’re about in the county, we’re about other things too, but the number one industry in Alberta, we have the highest gross of farm receipts of any jurisdiction,” he said.
In Ebel’s mind, the county wouldn’t be doing their due diligence if it wasn’t in China trying to promote essentially the largest market by population in the world, who are looking for good food products.
There is an expense, Ebel said, but the old adage,”You have to spend money to make money,” applies here.
“We’re investing. I really would look at it as an investment. We’re investing time, money and we’re very conscious this is taxpayer money. This is not a holiday,” Ebel said, adding the delegation has an appointment with the Canadian embassy in Beijing and Shanghai. “To put faces to names, so they know what we are about and we can make our sales pitch.” Ebel added the delegation also has meetings with investors and businesses in various locations.
In October 2015, a delegation visited the county from Anyang County and a twinning sister county relationship was formed. Ebel said the reason the county is visiting China now is because elections are coming up in the area in March.
“For us to be interacting with the same people who came over, we had to do it now. Some of them, after the elections, may still be in place but they may not,” he said, adding local municipal elections will be taking place this fall, as well.
Lethbridge County’s China delegation will be leaving today from the Lethbridge Airport and the trip will be somewhat linked to the City of Lethbridge delegation leaving on Feb. 12. University of Lethbridge and Lethbridge College representatives will also be joining the city’s delegation. Lethbridge County’s delegation will include Ebel, Reeve Lorne Hickey, Deputy Reeve Henry Doeve, Coun. Morris Zeinstra and county Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) Rick Robinson. The delegation will also include a protocol expert guide to handle translation and protocol.