Starter's road map to world of business

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 April, 2009, 12:00am


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It has been just under 20 years since Belgian Jack Leblanc heeded a call to go to China and arrived in Chongqing with a suitcase of science books to teach at a university. The freshly minted nuclear physics graduate had abandoned the prospect of a car and a house in the Brussels suburbs for the unknowns of the teeming, riverside metropolis.

Since then, Leblanc has gone from teaching computer science on a pre-internet mainland campus to refining his version of the art of the deal in one of the world's most dynamic business environments. The ride along the way is mapped out in his boys' own business adventure, Business Republic of China.

The escapades in the world of commerce began with a phone call.

Jan, a family friend, was on the line with an offer: would Jack like to sell float glass in China?

Leblanc set off with some samples and a slide show in search of his first customer. He found Jackson Long, a well-connected construction materials trader with a taste for baijiu (liquor distilled from grains), karaoke and an American singer called Michael. Together, they spent the next year trying to convince design institute officials to endorse their glass for use in a government-backed five-star hotel and exhibition centre. They drank, ate, sang and dipped in hot spas - all in the cause of landing the contract.

It was Leblanc's baptism of business baijiu and the venture inducted him into a way of life that was not always profitable but, at least, consistently memorable.

The tales from trading front lines are personal stories that chart the major changes in Chinese entrepreneurialism as the mainland opened up to the outside. There is the case of the Chongqing motorcycle maker trying to stay ahead of the competition and intellectual property rights infringements, the Hainan businessman using a joint venture with a European company as a decoy for his other interests, and Leblanc's own attempts to capitalise on the dotcom dream.

The examples show how macro developments such as currency devaluations, entry into the World Trade Organisation, the Asian financial crisis and an epidemic can affect people on the ground. They also show how a certain kind of persistence, experience and empathy can win out in the long term.

Business Republic of China is a page-turner. In each case, you want to know just how well or poorly the deal turns out and the motivations driving each party. The read is worth it for the postscripts on the people involved and the quieter moments of insight and humour. One of those moments occurs at the end of the float glass chapter, when a dogged negotiator reminds the suppliers why he has played hardball.

'Yes, we are old friends,' he says. '[But] we can't just go with every proposal that might suck money out of the motherland.'