To celebrate Dezan Shira & Associates 25 years of professional services in Asia, we are conducting a series of interviews with key personnel. Chris Devonshire-Ellis is Dezan Shira & Associates Founding Partner and Chairman.
China Briefing: So, tell us Chris, exactly how did you get Dezan Shira started?
Chris Devonshire-Ellis (CDE): It was very early days in China, and long before the handover of Hong Kong to Britain. No-one wanted to go to China; Tiananmen had occurred and it was a difficult time. But when Deng Xiaoping, who was Premier at the time, said “To get rich is glorious”, I knew things would start to change. Dezan Shira & Associates actually predates most of the Chinese firms in China. Legal and tax liberalization didn’t occur until 1995, before that all lawyers and accountants worked for the government. So, we really were early birds!
China Briefing: You set up the firm in Shenzhen initially, and not Shanghai or Beijing. Why?
CDE: It was the tax incentives. Shenzhen was a Special Economic Zone, with corporate income tax rates of between 9 percent and 15 percent, and no tax on profits for two years, and only half the next three. I knew that would attract manufacturing investors. Everyone else wanted to be in Beijing or Shanghai, Shenzhen was considered rough. But sure enough foreign investors piled in and we were the only firm in town. There’s a lesson – follow the tax code to evaluate where to base your operations. Two years after that we were operating in Shanghai and Beijing anyway.
China Briefing: Do you remember your first British client?
CDE: I think it was a company called GET PLC; essentially they were a family business. They made electrical equipment. We set up their Representative Office, then serviced their accounting and other Chinese admin issues. We did a good job: they were eventually acquired by Schneider Electric. I think we made GET’s shareholders very happy!
China Briefing: Dezan Shira have handled a huge amount of British investments into China, some £475 million over the years. What is a typical client?
CDE: Actually, the amount of British investment we’ve facilitated into China is probably much larger once you factor in all the British-owned Hong Kong companies that we’ve used for various reasons to funnel money into the PRC. But that is over a 25 year period. Most are small and medium companies, with investments less than a million or in the low millions. Many will have started small, maybe with a Representative or Liaison Office, then graduated to a WFOE once they felt ready. A few have grown from zero to being billion pound businesses in their own right during that time. Others have been acquired or have branched out and expanded further into China and Asia; there’s been a lot of organic growth. We’re happy to help smaller companies as long as they are prepared to invest in the challenges of doing business in China and operating properly, we’ll support them and help them develop in return. It’s a symbiotic relationship that works well. There’s no drama with Dezan Shira and none either from our clients. Just steady, sustainable growth. We know full well what it’s like to operate a foreign business in China, we can pass that knowledge on.
China Briefing: What do you see as a pivotal moment when considering the success of Dezan Shira?
CDE: Probably the early decision to start a subsidiary publishing business. I launched China Briefing in 1999, pre-internet days. Within a year, we went from being a little known firm to having national coverage. Now we produce websites and titles covering not just China, but ASEAN, India, Indonesia, Russia and Vietnam, with more in the pipeline. Opening our own publications business has been an immense help to Dezan Shira’s own development and reputation. No-one was making China legal and tax information available for free until we did it. Now with the internet, websites and blogs it is industry standard. But we were the first.
China Briefing: How well is the British Community served in China?
CDE: The CBBC does a good job with their launch pad scheme, and is aligned with the British Chambers of Commerce in China. We’ve been members of all of them. British investors really want to learn about on the ground issues, cost comparisons, and production capabilities. There’s a wealth of knowledge within the CBBC and chambers for new startups, although the benefit of this tails off once you get established and know what you’re doing. An area that could be improved for example are the communications with British Chambers from other countries. British businesses in China would do well to have a view or access to intelligence viz-a-viz topics such as the China-India trade corridor from the British Chamber equivalent in Delhi for example, yet this doesn’t happen. I’m interested to know whether or not the British Chambers in China will reintroduce the White Paper they used to give to the Chinese Government on behalf of British businesses each year. They dropped that once the European Chamber got organised. Now with Brexit I don’t see the British having a direct voice to the Chinese via the EU Chamber, I don’t know what they’re going to do about that. However, I prefer just to concentrate on British business investments on the ground in China and keep it quiet and simple. I prefer not to get so involved with the UK’s political issues with China, we’re more practical and concerned with the simpler things like helping our clients make products and profits. We’re happy to let the CBBC deal with the political backslapping, and they’re very good at it.
China Briefing: What specific advice do you have for British investors in China?
CDE: A lot of our clients are SME’s and need both value for money, and to maximize on that investment. So, we tell them to be in compliance as soon as they can. That means properly paying taxes, having excellent record keeping, paying things such as Microsoft licenses, that sort of thing. As soon as they can do that, and be sustainable, they have real assets in the business. If they sell the company later, that compliance will stand them in good stead. If they haven’t been running their business properly, any future potential buyers will discount the purchase price. It makes sense to get up and running and operationally complaint as soon as possible. If you want to cut corners, it’s always a short term fix and leads to problems later. So: compliance, compliance, compliance. It saves a lot of money longer term, and makes your business far more resilient and valuable.
China Briefing: Do you have any amusing stories about British investors in China?
CDE: I have often helped British nationals deal with the unique situations in China. I was serving as the Shanghai Consul’s voluntary assistance one weekend, and recall getting a call on a Friday evening about some British guy who had been arrested at Pudong Airport – I was asked if I could go and sort it out. So, I drive there, and it’s a professor of urology who has been detained. He was an expert in his field, and had been invited to lecture the next day at a medical conference. He’d hand carried in a box of plastic anatomic models of the male organ to show off the main arteries and waterworks. A female customs officer had demanded to see what was in the box, he got a bit flustered, resisted out of embarrassment, and the end result was this box broke open and all these plastic models ended up all over the floor. He was being detained under suspicion of importing pornographic items and insulting the dignity of the female officer. He was being held in a cell and was in a right state. Anyway, I calmed him down, we signed a ‘confession’, I paid a RMB 500 fine, we got the models back with a warning next time to declare them, and I took him to a bar to have a stiff G&T and recover. He eventually saw the funny side of it, checked into his hotel, and his conference went well. I still get Christmas cards from him.
China Briefing: What do you think of the changes mooted to the professional services industry in China?
CDE: The CCP want both the legal and audit industries more under their control and part of the upcoming legislation is designed to achieve that. Some of that is positive, but some not. There is a lack of overall transparency in audit and I see that continuing, not improving. China likes to keep legislation and the ultimate interpretation of that under the control of the CCP. That means it will continue to be a movable line in terms of legal challenges. The best we can hope for is some sort of crackdown on unproductive and localized forms of guanxi [network], but when the entire system supports that from the top it’s hard to see meaningful changes. I see a lot of the rhetoric about reform as just words. Just as an aside, I personally don’t invest in Chinese listed companies stocks and shares. It’s a market for what I would term “specialists”.
China Briefing: And where’s next for Dezan Shira?
CDE: I grew the firm into and then out of China – we have 12 China offices so still have a strong footprint here, but the future is in Asia overall. We set up our first India office a decade ago, and we’ve also expanded throughout the region. India is starting to take over the “workshop of the world” title from China, and the domestic wealth there is outstanding. We also have either our own direct presence or a Dezan Shira Alliance Partner firm in all the main ASEAN nations. We’re also interested in the Silk Road, have a partner firm in Russia and are launching our Silk Road Briefing portal this coming Monday. So, we’ve morphed into an Asian practice, with China being a key component of that. Our clients want more choice, and are also investing in non-China locations –we’re there to handle things for them. Otherwise, we’re investing a lot in IT driven services. We provide payroll solutions with our own software platform, for example, and other IT driven platforms, such as the HR function and treasury – all online. Investing in IT based solutions is key to professional services development and that, coupled with what is now a huge Asian footprint should allow us to remain useful, independent and competitive for many years to come.
Asia Briefing Ltd. is a subsidiary of Dezan Shira & Associates. Dezan Shira is a specialist foreign direct investment practice, providing corporate establishment, business advisory, tax advisory and compliance, accounting, payroll, due diligence and financial review services to multinationals investing in China, Hong Kong, India, Vietnam, Singapore and the rest of ASEAN. For further information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.dezshira.com.
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