THROUGH THE LARGE windows of Bernd Blumenberg's modestly furnished office in the Nanjing Chemical Industry Park, occupied by the chief of a BASF-backed joint venture, one takes in a sweeping view of a vast construction site. Below, a Euro2.9 billion (HK$27.99 billion) petrochemical complex is taking shape, with all the complications that building such a large project in China inevitably entails. On this day an unusually dense fog had obscured the view, closing off a bridge leading to the park and delaying the interview with Mr Blumenberg, the president of BASF-YPC, a joint venture between the German chemical giant and Sinopec Yangzi Petrochemical. Yet, after seven years working in China, Mr Blumenberg seems used to such hindrances and barely registers irritation. Away from the Teutonic orderliness of his home country, he has maintained a down to earth style that apparently extends to wardrobe planning. Being coaxed into wearing a jacket for the photo session by a co-worker, the laboratory scientist turned manager quipped: 'Many successful businessmen do not care about what they wear ... but perhaps some women may have a different perception on this.' Mr Blumenberg said the project was conceived as early as 1994, when BASF was closing negotiations with Sinopec Yangzi on an earlier joint venture plant which made chemicals for the packaging, electronics, toy and household goods industries. 'The Chinese government saw a big need to build up this kind of industry as it is considered strategic for the whole economy,' he said, referring to the vision of building world-scale petrochemical facilities and interlinking multiple manufacturing processes into an integrated whole. China is driven by an ambition to build giant chemical parks that rival its counterparts in Antwerp in Belgium and Houston in the United States where competing firms form giant production clusters to take advantage of lower transport, energy and material costs. BASF dubs the approach verbund, which seeks to save energy and material costs by connecting plants and allowing waste materials to be recycled as inputs to other production processes. Sinopec Yangzi - a subsidiary of the country's largest chemical maker China Petroleum & Chemical (Sinopec) and the German giant - signed a letter of intent in 1996 and a joint venture contract in 2000 for the project, which requires 150,000 tonnes of steel and will see 1,100km of piping installed. The venture is a key part of BASF's goal to boost the proportion of locally produced sales to 70 per cent of total turnover in the Asia-Pacific region by 2010. Bringing together the corporate culture of an over-staffed state enterprise with a far leaner, results-oriented international operation has produced its fair share of trials and tribulations. When all of the projects' facilities come on stream in the first quarter of 2005, BASF-YPC is expected to have a staff of 1,650 and the capability to generate annual sales of as much as US$1.4 billion. Sinopec Yangzi last year turned over $800 million and had 10,139 workers at the end of 2001. Along the way local workers posted complaints about their low pay compared with the foreign workers, but relations apparently improved after mainland workers were sent on business trips to Brazil and Malaysia, Mr Blumenberg said. 'They can see for themselves the obligations of people living in richer countries such as more expensive housing, while in China housing is inexpensive,' he said. 'It's all relative. 'They got a broader view of the issue, which helped minimise the [emotional discomfort].' While the mainland workers may have been jealous of their foreign counterparts, they are expected to have unprecedented opportunities to advance their careers and salaries in the next few years. Several Sino-foreign petrochemical joint ventures will come on stream from 2005 to 2006, with several more to start by 2010. 'Next year, we will see a lot of competition for good talent,' Mr Blumenberg said, adding BASF-YPC would first hire people from Sinopec before going to the open market for the skills it needed. Another tough task for him is the management of cross-cultural 'misunderstandings', with contractors from eight countries and regions being drafted. The overseas experts have been hired from Japan, South Korea, Britain, Australia, Spain, Taiwan and the United States. For example, 'lively conversations' by Australian colleagues had made the 'more quiet Chinese colleagues not so easy', Mr Blumenberg said. But he played down the impact on workers' performance. 'It's not about nationality, education or culture,' he said. 'People's backgrounds play a role, but all men are the same at the end of the day. 'There may be differences between Chinese and Europeans, but I think the real feelings are the same for people around the world.' His solutions to managing cultural nuances boil down to three things: 'mutual respect, open dialogue and honesty'. 'Many guidebooks teach you how to negotiate and do business with the Chinese, but by my experience, the difference [from doing business elsewhere] is just that the [misunderstandings can be] more pronounced, but to resolve them you just go by the same rules,' Mr Blumenberg said. Given the central government stipulates that mainland companies must have at least a 50 per cent stake in large integrated petrochemical projects, the lack of majority management control inevitably presents difficulties for BASF. Mr Blumenberg has a philosophical approach to the problem: 'Just do what's best for the joint venture, because it is also to the benefits of both parents.' The verbund approach - by sharing resources among colleagues, business partners, suppliers, customers and even rivals - could also be used to help bridge the gap between joint venture partners, he said. 'You can always find someone who knows [something] better than you; you just need to find them,' he said. Mr Blumenberg was coy about whether he would stay on at the joint venture after production began. 'Building it is one thing, the real challenge is starting it up properly,' he said. 'It's not about nationality or culture. People's backgrounds play a role, but all men are the same at the end of the day' Biography Born in 1946 in Harlingerode/Bad Harzburg, Germany, Mr Blumenberg studied physical chemistry at the University of Gottingen from 1968 to 1972. He was awarded a PhD in physical chemistry in 1975. He joined BASF as a research chemist in the process development department in 1978. Two years later, he took up a specialist post dealing with isocyanates at BASF Wyandotte Corp in the United States. In 1986, he was made plant manager at BASF's Belgian plant in Antwerp. Two years later, he was promoted to senior vice-president for process development at company headquarters. He joined BASF's China operation in 1996 and has served as president of BASF-YPC since December 2000. He was one of 50 to receive the Friendship Award - honouring foreigners' contributions to China - by the central government.