If you want to work in Hong Kong, there is no substitute for going out there and getting to know people. This message was emphasised time and again during last week's joint Department of Trade & Industry and London Chamber of Commerce & Industry conference for firms keen to begin working in the former British colony.
Despite a 4% shrinking of Hong Kong's economy this year, prospects for construction are good, with around 20bn to be spent on infrastructure over the next five years.
The DTI and LCCI had brought together speakers from Hong Kong and Britain to explain the market and the scope for doing business there. About 100 delegates attended, many with no experience of Hong Kong. All were eager for advice about how to make a start.
Andrew Seaton of the British Consulate-General in Hong Kong assured delegates there was no discrimination against British firms since the UK relinquished control to China last year.
But British contractors are not out there in the same sort of force as a decade ago, observed Mass Transit Railway Corporation general manager (consultancy) Bill Donald. MTRC, like fellow operator Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation, has billions of pounds worth of work coming up.
British contractors had enjoyed considerable success on MTR projects from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, carrying out 18% of the total project cost of the schemes, said Donald. The figure however was down to about 12% - even less on the civils side - on the recently completed Airport Railway.
MTRC runs an open style of tendering, which favours no-one, using a rigorous pre-qualification system, he said. One of the difficulties was that British firms see political and financial risks in Hong Kong. 'We're pretty sure there are no risks,' he said. 'But I think another problem is that UK contractors look at us as wholly government-owned and wonder what treatment they will get if they get into difficulties. I can tell you that we don't work in that style,' he stressed. 'Contractors which work with us come back and get work and I believe they do that because we've been absolutely fair.'
He acknowledged that MTRC is nevertheless an extremely demanding client. British contractors may feel that MTR's project managers are interfering in their work. 'We don't accept that - if you look at the results, you have to agree that it works,' he said.
He added that MTR was quick to make decisions and unwilling to let contractors go for long periods with large sums outstanding. 'We're not in the business of leaving contractors to extricate themselves from difficulties through the project,' he added. 'Nothing is allowed to fester.'
Several speakers referred to the importance of making good use of available resources like the DTI. Another key to success is forging links with local contractors in joint ventures to bridge gaps in language knowledge and working systems.
Perseverance can also pay off. 'Just last week we let a major rolling stock contract to Hyundai,' said Donald. They had made themselves known by insisting on seeing the chairman and demonstrating what they had done elsewhere. There were a lot of hurdles to go through. 'If Hyundai can come to Hong Kong, I'm sure British firms could,' he said.
Contractors would know this already if they were tendering for the current MTRC schemes. But other major new lines are being planned to open from 2006. These are the jobs that new entrants to Hong Kong should be looking to, he suggested.