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Peter Pronk: A Dutch Businessman's Chinese Heart has recently interviewed Peter Pronk, a Dutch businessman working in China for years to help the Western businesspeople doing business in China. He is now the CEO of 1421 Business Consulting Co,. Ltd. has recently interviewed Peter Pronk, a Dutch businessman working in China for years to help the Western businesspeople doing business in China. He is now the CEO of 1421 Business Consulting Co,. Ltd. Here is the questions and answers of his interview.

Peter Pronk



What business does your company do in China now?

We have a company in Hong Kong and Beijing and we just opened an office in Guangzhou. 1421, in principle, supports and assists Western companies to do business in China. In principle, we work for Western companies from all over the world: we work for companies from USA, Europe and Australia…everywhere. There are many consultants that claim to help Western people to do business. We are different because we have a base in China. We have a team of almost 30 people professional people. We give our customers full support that we called "one-stop shopping model" because 80 percent of the Western companies that try to do business in China fail. That's not because of China. They failed because they made wrong decisions; they don't prepare themselves; in principle, because they look upon China on a wrong way. China is an old lady of 5,000 years young; Europe is old as a young baby of 2,000 years. The Western people have a "big mouth", they have a different way of looking at things compared with the Chinese people. What we try to do is, when somebody wants to do business (with China,) we help them to make a good plan, to check the market very carefully, to make the right decisions in choosing the partner if they need one, to take the right decision, to set up the HR department, to meet all the requirements. Using all I have learnt to help them to set up their own business and then they can belong to the 20 percent of the companies that will be successful.

There are a lot of Western people come to China. I think that Western people, we like to colonize, especially Europeans. History shows that Western people, in principle are colonists. Two thousand years ago we had the Bible. We traveled to other countries. We didn't ask the people if we could visit the country but we took over the country. The Dutch, British, Spanish etc are very good at that. Western countries colonized South Africa, Cuba, Indonesia. the Philippines etc. America is colonized some 250 years by the European.

But China you cannot colonize it because it's too large, too old. A lot of people come here and think they can colonize China. (It's) not possible. We train them not to colonize China but to accept China as it is. We help them to be successful. That's what we can do for companies. We have a lot of skilled people; a lot of Chinese people and Western people working for us in HR, finance, legal support. We have very good drivers; we have cars; we have office spaces. We help people to first try China and don't start to marry the first woman they see. We say "first try and then buy" because a lot of people are not suitable for doing business in China.

I learned from your biography that you started your career by being meat wholesaler. I wonder what made you change to what you are doing today.

This is my 16th company, I like new things. When I have my meat business, I started when I was 23, when I started I already promised myself two things: one, I cannot do it the rest of my life; two, I'm not going to do it for my children. Well, I always promise myself before 40 I will sell the business. And I sold the business when I was 37. Then I bought other companies, invested in many companies…in lingerie, in wine, marketing and…all kind of companies. I bought, together with other investors, a very big polyester factory. I (also) owned shares in a renewable energy company. I like to start up a company. I still have some companies - some I sold, some I'm not a shareholder anymore. I don't want to do something for the rest of my life. I want to change, and I want to learn everyday.

What made you come to China and what made you to stay?

I came to China for the first time 19 years ago for adoption of our daughter, Annelie. When my wife and I came to China, I fell in love with this country. Nineteen years ago China was different, was just opening up. My daughter is from Guizhou, a very poor province at the time and I saw the potential and the possibility of China. I wrote in my little diary: "if Chinese people start to eat bread, the Western people will have a problem." If 1.3 billion people start to eat bread, they need to buy wheat from somewhere. That happens not only with bread, but also with steel and everything. That was the beginning China started to boom. I wrote down in my diary: "One day I'm going to move and live in China." I promised myself. But there was no connection (between me and China) other than my daughter came from this country; and other than my meat business – I sold little pigs to the Chinese restaurants in Holland. That was my only connection with China.

In 2004 I started to come here for business. I was involved in a wind energy business as a consultant. They asked me to look for a partner in China, so I helped them to find a partner. At first, of course, you meet a good partner, then a better partner. Finally through the governor of Gansu, I met the China Aerospace (Science and Technology Corporation), and China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology. And then I negotiated the marriage between the Dutch wind turbine company and China Aerospace. I sold the first wind farm and the technology. I organized two joint ventures setting up in the Inner Mongolia. And then I set up a sales joint venture in Beijing. In 2008, the Dutch and the Chinese asked me if I wanted to move to China because they need a white guy helping them to do business. In 2010, I quit working for them and then they became my customer because they still need my help. We helped them to purchase all kinds of equipment. I helped them in the marriage with China Aerospace. I was the bridge man.

I know (only) a little bit (of China). I think I need to grow a thousand years to understand 1 percent of China, so I have so much more to learn. China is, for Western people, not an easy country, but I love it. I love to open doors. This is a country that if you come here it doesn't mean you know everything. I love to learn. This is a beautiful country to learn. I work for Chinese state-owned companies for 2 years. I was the only white guy working there. I learned so much. I learned to be patient, I learned to be silent, I learned to listen, to look and a little bit about Guanxi, which is very difficult. Western people think it is networking, but it's not. Western people think if I give you something, then I need to expect something back. Guanxi is not about giving or getting back, it's about maintaining what you have, and if one day you need something, you can ask for it; or if the other one asks you, you have to try to give it to him or her. Western people always expect something back. That is a mistake. 

What was your view on China when you first came and what is it now?

China has changed in many expects: new leaders, new 5 years plan, more connection to the world outside China. China is the only country in the world that tries to solve Africa for hundreds of years while Western people only used it for slaves and diamonds; they let a lot of people die every day, but China goes there with very good plans, building roads, airports and they organize to buy back resources or raw materials. That has been changed. Five years ago if you went to a Western restaurant, you would see 80 percent of Western people and 20 percent of Chinese, but now you see 20 percent of Western people and 80 percent Chinese. China had the Olympic Games, which was the first time China could show itself to the world, in a very beautiful way.

So what we saw is we saw China grow. I think at the same time, my wife and me also changed a lot. We start to learn about the country. We start to read more about the history. We start to try to understand more. Even up to today, I every time realize I don't know enough. China is still, even sometimes, too difficult for me (to understand.) Not to China as a country, not to its history, but to the people. You never stop learning in China. The first moment I landed here was December 6, very cold in Beijing. Then we flew to Changsha, where Mao Zedong was born. Later we flew to Guizhou, China was dirty, China was much poorer (than nowadays) but I loved it. I always felt that I had lived here before in my past life. I don't speak the language, but I just loved it. I don't know the reason, there shouldn't be a reason. I knew I wanted to come back, I knew I wanted to live here.

At the same time, I also took interest of the country, I started to learn, to read about it. I read a lot of books, about Mao Zedong, about all the emperors, about Zheng He, also about how foreign people look at China. Because the picture we have about China and that people outside China have are totally different. It's the same to the picture Chinese people have about the West. If you don't know anything you don't know how to judge it. If you are only informed by the press, by the government about it, (it's not enough.) You have to discover yourselves. You have to go to town. You have to talk with people. You have to work with them. And then you learn. You will make mistakes, but if you make mistakes, you can understand. You learn more from mistakes than you learn from success. In China, people don't like to make mistakes. It's a little strange. China is country that grows so fast every year. So I try to understand a little more (about China). I think if I die in a hundred years' time, I still don't know enough. I need to come back and be born as a Chinese to learn more again.

What are the major problems the foreign companies, like yours, have with the Chinese companies? How do you solve them?

Many, but the problems do not come from Chinese, the problems are from foreign companies. First we tell every foreign company the problem is not China. The problem is Western people come to this country: A. Don't know enough of the country; B. Don't know enough of the market; C. Many of them want to make money in a very short period, only want to take money away from China. These are the three main problems. They don't take time to learn about the country. Many of them are naive, short sighted, not thinking first before they start to do business. Many Western people come to China think this is China and they will do what they want. But it is a totally different culture and government, different tax systems, different HR rules, and different legal systems. Many Western people do business with a Chinese partner but they don't even check the partner. I also made this mistake. I had my first (Chinese) partner and I negotiated with him in 2006. The guy took me to the restaurant in the Great Hall of People where only presidents could eat, so I thought his was an interesting guy. He could organize things, but he had nothing, no money. Later he was arrested because he spent government's money on his girlfriend. I should have checked him up first. Luckily, somebody who worked for that guy came to me. He said: "Peter, you will never get a deal or your money." So I was saved, walked away and found another company. Later he became my best friend up to today. Finally I came into contact with China Aerospace, a serious company. They could fulfill the promise on everything I agreed. 

What is your future plan in China?

I started 3 years ago with my company. I have almost 30 people working for me. I have responsibility to these people. I want to build the company 1421. Second, all my children live in Europe. My wife has a very nice job in Beijing. We don't need much money together. We live a good life and I don't want to leave China. I don't want to leave because - first, the responsibility to my customers and my employees; second is we love living here. We don't want to go back to Holland. I will see what takes me in the future. It took me a lot of effort to where we are now, and I know it is still difficult to maintain and to let everybody happy, not only your customers but also your employees. I also have to learn a lot with them. But at this moment I don't have plans (to move to other place.) I really want to connect to this country as much as possible. If I die here, fine. If I don't die here, also good. But I want to ask myself do something else (in the future). It's nothing to do with age. There is one thing very important for me – it doesn't matter if you are 21, 50 or 80, you should at any moment do whatever things you could with the talents you have. For that, you don't need to become 80. 

(By Cai Chujing and Lynus Tan)
Editor:Lynus Tan
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