CONSULTANTS have barely scratched the surface of the Chinese construction market despite the removal of trade barriers for foreign companies, according to research carried out by NCE this week.
But they said their presence was growing rapidly and expressed optimism about long term prospects in the People's Republic.
NCE's research shows that consultants listed in its annual Consultants File have a combined Chinese turnover of just £45M. This represents just 2.5% of the £1.8bn international turnover for 2004.
The amount is tiny compared to the estimated £200bn spent annually on construction in China.
Consultants have been building workload in areas like planning, landscaping, transport planning and environmental advice - specialist areas where the Chinese lack local experience.
China joins the World Trade Organisation in two years' time, and this is expected to herald more privatisation and more opportunity for Western companies.
Scott Wilson appears to be the firm with the most local staff, employing 450 in mainland China. It expects to more than double this to 1,000 by 2010.
Mott MacDonald is aiming for the same number but only has 43 staff there at present. 'For us it's all about the risk of not being there, ' said Mott MacDonald chairman Mike Blackburn.
'We see China as an enormous potential market, bigger and more complex than Europe. But we genuinely have to sell locally.' Atkins' organisation in Shanghai has grown from scratch to 125 in the last three years and now employs 325 across the People's Republic.
It said it had a 'private number' in mind in terms of expansion.
Scott Wilson chairman Geoff French said it was turning over £7M in the country and has a strong list of Chinese clients.
'But having been there for more than 20 years, we know it is very difficult and diverse.
The provinces individually are huge and you can't think that contacts in Beijing will help in Shenzhen, ' he said.
'The question is: can you afford to ignore China-' said Atkins chief operating officer Norman Schunter. 'The Hong Kong market has dried up.
China is growing at 10% a year.
And there is a need for UK expertise. But you need the contacts and the right people - Chinese people.' her consultants were more sceptical about prospects. 'I don't see us being big there, ' said WSP chief executive Chris Cole.
'China is not an area to invest in. We have done, but with minimal or negative return.' Jackie Whitelaw (See feature page 16)