Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Connecting with Companies in China

Mark McClelland and Delphine Grattan do a fair amount of traveling for Walbridge. But they really rack up the miles when they venture to China to build relationships with companies that may have an interest in constructing or renovating a facility in North America.

McClelland, Vice President for Walbridge’s Industrial Group, and Grattan, Business Development Associate, have struck out for China five times since May 2014. They pack a lot into a short amount of time, as evidenced by this itinerary from a recent trip:

  • Day One: Fly from Detroit to Beijing (6,623 miles);
  • Day Two: Take a train from Beijing to Tianjing (70 miles) to meet representatives of a subsidiary of China’s largest automotive facility design firm;
  • Day Three:
    • Take a train from Tianjing back to Beijing (70 miles) to meet an automobile manufacturer with an interest in constructing facilities in North America.
    • Fly from Beijing to Chuangchun (535 miles) for dinner with members of an association representing auto tier suppliers, construction materials manufacturers, heavy equipment makers, and electronics companies;
  • Day Four: Drive from Chuangchun to Jilin (125 miles) for a meeting with the fastener branch of the No. 2 automaker in China; drive back to Chuangchun (125 miles) and fly to Fuzhou (1,642 miles); flight is delayed to accommodate a traveling government official; flight arrives at midnight;
  • Day Five: Take train from Fuzhou to Ningde (57 miles) for a scheduled meeting with a manufacturer of batteries for electronic vehicles;
  • Day Six: Take a high-speed train from Ningde to Shanghai (408 miles) then fly home to Detroit (7,136 miles.)

Total miles: 16,791. By comparison, the circumference of Earth is 24,901 miles.

Mark McClelland and Delphine Grattan tour a facility in China
Mark McClelland and Delphine Grattan tour a facility in China

“The locations of customers are spread across China, which is so big,” Grattan said. “We spend a lot of time on the road traveling by train, planes and taxis daily.”

McClelland said it takes months of work and follow-up with companies just to get an invitation to visit China. He and Grattan want to meet in-person and explain how Walbridge helped large foreign companies, namely Toyota, BMW and Mercedes, successfully find suitable locations for expansion in the U.S.

“We want to take those successes and replicate them with Chinese companies considering a move into North and South America,” McClelland said. “We’ve given them the names of site selection companies here in the States and we’ve introduced them to a U.S.-based design firm with an office China. We want to become a trusted advocate for them in the U.S.”

Companies in China desire to learn a lot about Walbridge. “They want to know what delivery methods we offer in the U.S.,” Grattan said. “They want to know about our locations and if we can provide design and pre-con services.”

McClelland said the heads of those companies also seek insights into government permitting and environmental regulations in the U.S. Our legal system has also drawn their attention. “They believe the U.S. legal system favors smaller companies over the larger corporations,” McClelland said. “In China, it’s the other way around.”

Most Chinese businesses are not looking to build brand-new facilities on greenfield sites in North or South America, according to Grattan. “Most of them are cautious about their first move,” she said. “They want to acquire a similar company to boost sales first. They’ll remodel now and build new facilities later.”

Some want to establish a foothold in the U.S. by building research and development facilities close to big American auto companies, McClelland said. “Then they’ll look to construct manufacturing facilities in North or South America,” he added.

Many meetings in China occur at company offices. But, conducting business over dinner is acceptable and necessary, Grattan said. “When they do a dinner meeting, it’s usually hosted in a high-class hotel,” she said. “It’s the way to show respect to the host and gain the respect of the attendees.”

One thing the Walbridge team does prior to concluding each meeting is to reach agreement with their host on next steps and set the stage for a follow-up meeting. “When you get that second meeting,” McClelland said, “you know they’re willing to establish a relationship. Relationship building and trust are top priorities for Chinese businesses.”

Grattan said she hopes the visits instill confidence among Chinese companies that Walbridge is solid and dependable. “We want them to feel that Walbridge is real and authentic,” she said. “That we’re welcoming and would be great at supporting their projects in North and South America.”