Wednesday 11 Jan 2017 07:30

Motoring on in China

Serial entrepreneur Jim James, the man who established The Morgan Motor Company in China, explains why British brands should explore opportunities in the Far East...

Jim James, founder of Morgan Motors (Beijing)

Jim James, founder of Morgan Motors (Beijing)

Having spent over two decades in the Far East, there isn’t much serial entrepreneur Jim James doesn’t know about the Chinese market.

Growing up in a small village near Canterbury, Jim went on to study American Studies at the University of Manchester but always knew he was destined to become an entrepreneur.

“I graduated in 1990 from Manchester University, or Owens as it was then called,” said Jim. “Following stints in advertising, food, and the music technology industries, I decided to move to Singapore in 1995 to launch my own PR company.

“Despite studying American Studies at University, I was always an entrepreneur at heart. Asia held the most existing prospects at the time in the mid 1990’s and I saw the move as a both a personal and professional challenge.”

The move to Singapore saw Jim establish EASTWEST Public Relations, helping UK brands establish themselves in the Far East.

The business grew steadily in its first few years until China joined the WTO in 2001. Suddenly, Jim found himself at the centre of a gold rush.

Businesses from all over the world were wanting to do business with China and Jim saw an opportunity to grow. In 2006, he moved to Beijing to establish EASTWEST’s newest office. 

China however, proved a little more challenging than Singapore.

Jim said: “My first challenge in China was one of language; I didn’t speak very much Mandarin. 

“I found the best way to get around this was to work in an environment which doesn’t require Mandarin, and to work with bilingual colleagues and customers. Nowadays however, technology is making translation more and more on demand and mobile.

“I am now onto my fourth business in China, and some challenges are recurring. Capital controls both at start-up and during operations are a significant burden. Finding and managing customers is also a challenge in such a vast and rapidly changing country.  

“There are also regional variations on behaviour as one would expect, and yet one needs a strategy to embrace sufficiently large audiences to get traction. Fortunately there are common language, currency, banking, social media and technology platforms. The solution is simply to take your time, and to attempt to marshal sufficient resources to address the chosen markets.

“Finally, the human resource challenge is a great one in China. The education system creates people who fundamentally think differently to western logic, layer that with societal differences and even before the normal issues of people management there are structural challenges. These are beyond any one company to address.

“Fortunately though, in a market with such a massive labour pool of well-educated and essentially hard working candidates, even the most demanding company should be able to find the employees that they want. Retaining them may be another issue.”

After spending over 20 years helping Western brands expand into the Far East, Jim had grown EASTWEST into a leading PR agency spanning three countries and had helped hundreds of brands penetrate the Chinese market.

It was in 2010 however when Jim launched one of his most ambitious projects to date, helping establish the iconic Morgan Motor Company in the Far East with the launch of Morgan Motors (Beijing). 

Jim fell in love with the Morgan Motor Company when he purchased his first Morgan Roadster back in 2010. Living in China, he was astounded to find that the company had no dealerships in Asia, meaning he had to import the car from the UK.

When it arrived, he couldn’t believe the reception it received. Locals were going barmy over it and Jim and his wife Wei were being stopped for pictures everywhere they drove - and Jim saw another opening.

“My wife and I purchased a Morgan Roadster and imported it to China in 2010. When we called Morgan to ask who the local dealer was, they informed me that there wasn’t one. Although my background was in technology and PR, I could see the impact of the car on people who saw it.  

“We drafted a business plan and submitted it to Morgan. In 2011 we were appointed and registered the Hong Kong company. In June 2013, the British Ambassador to China, Sebastian Wood CMG, opened our showroom in Beijing.”

When Jim opened the Beijing dealership, it made headlines across the Far East and even back home in the UK. The only problem Jim faced was coping with the demand. As all Morgan cars are hand-made, it’s not a product which can be mass produced like other motors or FMCG’s. 

“The only snag, on the 17th we had three cars in our showroom, on the 18th we had two. A customer drove the 4/4 75th Anniversary edition car out of the showroom just two hours after viewing her."

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There are so many opportunities in China. Chinese consumers have become obsessed with almost everything British over recent years - and for businesses - the possibilities are endless. 

“Morgan builds beautiful British sports cars and the interest in China of classic cars has come of age. I like the heritage of the brand but also believe that it has a lot of promise in China and does not have any direct competition.  

“Morgan appeals to the Chinese because it has heritage, is British, and the cars look classic. In a market that does not allow classic cars, Morgan is the only modern classic which can be driven on the roads in China. The challenge is to explain that a car can still be built out of wood, and be completely compliant with modern safety standards.” 

The family-owned Morgan Motor Company, based in the Malvern Hills, was established in 1910 and has been hand building cars ever since. Today, it employs 177 people in the UK and builds around 500 cars each year.

Traditionally, most Morgan cars were sold to customers in the UK, with France and Germany it’s most active export markets. Today however, the company is seeing an increasing number of Morgan’s making their way into Asia, via Jim’s Chinese network.

“Since we opened the showroom we have imported some 43 cars, and are on track to break 50 this year; it has been behind our initial plan but represents a successful market entry by a hand built car that people in China had not heard of before. Seven out of 10 companies fail in their first three years, and so to break past those early danger stages gives us great confidence for the future.”

Jim's success with Morgan hasn't gone unnoticed. When fellow UK manufacturer Lotus was looking to grow its presence in the region just last year, it was Jim they turned to for support. It was during his time at Lotus when he dreamt up his latest venture, an annual event promoting the British automotive sector in the Far East. 

“For a period in 2015/16 I was interim CEO of Lotus at the same time as operating Morgan, and it was obvious that these niche British brands needed a shared platform for promotion that was more than a trade show, but rather a complete British experience. 

“This inspired me to launch the British Motor Festival in China. I launched the event in October last year and we had JLR, Morgan, Aston Martin, Radical, and Mini attend along with some 26 British FMCG brands at a race track. 

“We had kids go-kart racing, British music and bouncy castles alongside hot laps and customer experiences. I took inspiration from British events like Goodwood Festival of Speed, which bring together the family, partly out of commercial interest but also as I have two young daughters who thoroughly enjoyed the day out; not least because of the cotton candy! 

“For 2017, we’re hoping the BMF will have more vehicles, more activities and more people. We are entering into a partnership with a Chinese media company to attract more Chinese visitors, and are also going to partner with the Federation of Classic Cars in China to ensure that we have a vintage showcase. 

“I have more British car brands committed for this year, and we aim to invite more people from the UK to come out to China. It can be a platform for them to launch their products and to find partners. In the coming years it will become a central part of the China motorsport and British social calendar.” 

Jim’s success with EASTWEST, Morgan and the BMF as well as his other ventures certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2015 he was named a ‘Leading Light’ of the British Council for his work and has been hailed as a leading example for businesses to follow.

Although quick to play down the accolade when asked about it, Jim was keen to pass on his knowledge and insights to other businesses looking to replicate his success: “China is such a large market that it warrants serious investigation but, as UBER learnt after US$1bn and 12 months, it is not easily taken. Other markets may be easier to secure but I would think few would offer the combination of scale and opportunity. 

“Establishing a business in the Chinese market can take time but if we look at companies like SWIRE which has operated for 150 years in China, the rewards for patience can be significant.

“My goal over the years has been to establish platforms for British brands to come into China; I use the PR firm and my digital services agency, Eggplant, and now the BMF, as low cost and low risk service businesses to bring products into China which have different cash flow profiles but which appeal to Anglophile Chinese. 

“Each business is of value as an independent entity but combined they are all stronger. I hope that these businesses will encourage more British brands to believe that exporting to China can be done, even by SME’s like WAKE (a British energy drink brand Jim has also helped launch in China), with the right strategy and partners in place.”

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