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UK rolls out red carpet for wealthy Chinese shoppers, investors

2014-12-11 13:17:53Source:AgenciesAuthor:

Evening sunlight highlights the upper floors of, from left, HSBC Holdings Plc, No 1 Canada Square, Citigroup Inc, 10 Upper Bank Street, and JPMorgan Chase & Co, as they stand at dusk in the Canary Wharf business, financial and shopping district of London, Aug 20, 2014. [Photo/CFP]
 


Retailers, hotels and banks respond as dealmakers flood into London, reports Bloomberg.

In the 87-year history of London's Jack Barclay Bentley dealership, it had never held a Chinese New Year celebration.

Until this year.

In February, the dealership invited more than 200 wealthy Chinese expatriates from fields such as finance and real estate to a Year of the Horse-themed event under the slogan "take the reins for a prosperous journey". Chinese-speaking staff were on hand.

"A quintessentially English dealership could be quite intimidating" for Chinese buyers, said Chris Harris, marketing director for luxury automotive group HR Owen Plc, which owns Jack Barclay. "We wanted to de-mystify the experience."

From luxury retailers to law firms to banks, Londoners are jockeying to take advantage of a wave of Chinese investment and tourism. With Russia, India and the Middle East struggling with weak commodity prices, businesses that cater to wealthy foreigners are betting Chinese money can make up the difference.

The property sector is seeing some of the most dramatic increase, with real estate investment in the British capital from China tripling from 2012 to 2013 to about $2.8 billion, a figure that will probably be matched this year, according to broker Knight Frank.

Chinese-financed projects include One Nine Elms, a 56-story apartment tower on the south bank of the Thames backed by developer Dalian Wanda Group Co Ltd.

Shanghai-based Greenland Holding Group Co this year said it would invest 1.2 billion pounds ($1.88 billion) redeveloping a brewery in the city and building a residential tower near Canary Wharf.

Chinese investors are also moving into corporate deal-making in United Kingdom. In July, private equity firm Hony Capital Ltd said it would buy the UK restaurant chain Pizza Express for about $1.4 billion-the largest-ever corporate takeover in the United Kingdom by a Chinese mainland company. The previous summer, Dalian Wanda agreed to pay $451 million for Sunseeker International Ltd, a London manufacturer of yachts that sell for as much as $20 million.

The increased presence is partly a function of China's diversifying economy, said Nicola Mayo, a partner at law firm Linklaters, who just returned to London after four years in Shanghai. "China Inc is looking strategically at more sectors beyond natural resources."

Some companies are using deals in the UK to strengthen their position back home. Investment firm Sanpower Group this year took control of House of Fraser in a transaction valuing the Oxford Street department store at 450 million pounds. It is planning dozens of branches in China.

Pizza Express expects to build new restaurants in the Chinese mainland, where interest in Italian-style fare is rising.

Wang Haibo, a 38-year-old accountant from the coastal city of Dalian who moved to London a decade ago, can taste the change. A few years back, "the only food you could get was from Hong Kong", he said. "Now, you can find every type of authentic Chinese food, from all the regions."

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has made a concerted effort to strengthen ties with China. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang joined Queen Elizabeth for tea when he visited London in June, and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne is promoting a plan to make London a hub for trading the yuan, for which the London Stock Exchange in June signed a strategic partnership with Bank of China Ltd.

Two years ago, Boodles, a jeweler with five London stores, had no Chinese speakers on staff. Now it has two and is looking for a third as more than 5 percent of its business comes from Chinese shoppers, up from 1 percent five years ago, said Managing Director Michael Wainwright.

One Chinese customer who "we made a huge sale to last year wants an orange diamond", said Wainwright. "You are looking at a million pounds-plus. We know this person can spend this kind of money."

Chinese shoppers have accounted for one-quarter of retail purchases by overseas visitors in London this year, according to duty-free shopping provider Global Blue-up from 14 percent in 2012.

The Chinese wave is arriving as London weans itself from a dependence on wealthy Russians, who provided steady work both to professional services firms and the luxury sector. Amid European Union sanctions over Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin's government has urged Russian companies to de-list from foreign stock exchanges and told billionaires to repatriate assets.

Obstacles remain to a whole-hearted embrace of China in London. China's economic growth is slowing to below 7 percent as a housing boom slows, which could curtail foreign investment and tourism in the UK and elsewhere.

Heathrow airport has trailed Frankfurt and Paris in developing new routes to China because of runway capacity limits. The UK has captured just 14 percent of the growth in flights from China to Europe over the past 20 years, with 34 percent going to Germany and 22 percent to France, figures from the Confederation of British Industry show.

Cameron's government is facing calls from business leaders to further loosen visa requirements for Chinese visitors. The UK is not a member of the passport-free Schengen area that includes most of western Europe, so Chinese travelers need separate visas. They often opt to avoid the hassle by only getting one for the continental countries.

"We think there should be more connectivity," said Peter Bishop, deputy chief executive officer of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The visa system, he said, "is weighted against people who want to do business in the UK".