Chris Carr: the legal expert helping Australian businesses get “China-ready”

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“If you are going to come to China, come here with a lot of patience and plenty of energy.  Have an open mind and a good dose of curiosity.”

Chris Carr has worked with exciting diverse range Australian businesses as they navigate the market in China. He has also provided support for Chinese businesses that are keen to gain market entry to Australia through trade and investment. To put his role in perspective, he’s equipping businesses with the necessary software and knowledge to navigate foreign markets.

Chris is Partner & Chief Representative -Shanghai at MinterEllison, an Australian-based legal and consulting practice with a growing international presence. He’s also a Non-Executive Director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.

Like many global Australians who packed up again to leave home after stint overseas, his combined 10-year stints in Beijing have inspired him a new commitment to working in Shanghai, another major Chinese city where he describes there is “never a dull moment”.

Interview by Tammy Lee, Marketing & Communications & Digital Manager, Advance.

What made you move to Shanghai?

Shanghai is a remarkable city by any measure.  Anyone who has ever visited would get that sense almost immediately. I had the great fortune to visit as a tourist, as a student and on business on many occasions during the past two decades.  I knew that working here would be different, but when presented with the opportunity, I  jumped at it. 

MinterEllison has refreshed and renewed its commitment to the Chinese market.  This shift has been profound.  We have management that are committed to seeing our clients succeed in the Asia Pacific and as part of that, China is crucial. With that deepening commitment, I joined the firm as a lateral partner hire and relocated from Sydney to Shanghai. At the same time, we also boosted our bench strength in Beijing and more recently grew significantly in Hong Kong.

Having lived in Beijing for ten years and having found it very rewarding, the prospect of leading an office and a team in one of the world's great cities was very hard to say no to. To lead an office of the only major Australian-owned and operated firm in the mainland market was also a great opportunity.

Can you tell us more about your role?

As Partner & Chief Representative of an Australian law firm on the ground in China, my role encompasses a lot. I am fortunate that I can work with both Chinese businesses looking to invest in Australia, as well as working with an array of Australian businesses on their market entry and compliance matters in China. Trade and investment matters. It's not everything, but it is vital to the Australian economy and Australia's national interest. I'm delighted that we can play a role in supporting that in both directions. It means I get to meet an array of people doing incredible things.

In addition to being a lawyer and advising clients, I am also responsible for the oversight and management of our team on the ground in Shanghai. Together with our Beijing colleagues we are a key interface for our broader stakeholders in China.  Leading a team and assisting bright lawyers get to the next stage of their careers is also always rewarding.

 

What's the hardest thing for multinational companies looking to enter the Chinese market?

Generally misunderstanding China and what is actually possible or realistic here.  This leads to a number of very commonly repeated errors (that show themselves in different forms).  People are very often the source of success and failure in this market.

It never ceases to amaze me how many foreign businesses coming to China seek to cut corners and sometimes in the most basic ways.   Likewise, the excessive over reliance on localised teams to manage relationships or the other failure, the lack of empowerment of local teams.  Both of these extremes stifle growth.  The greatest successes and the most significant problems that I've seen on the ground here have had people at their core.

The regulatory environment is hard, but usually not insurmountable (absent special circumstances). Strong localised teams are great when they are part of the culture and fabric of a global or multi-national business. But if local teams don't have a sense of inclusion in a global platform, they won't act like it.  Foreign businesses that find ways to involve and organically grow their local teams (and not give up with one or two failures or false starts), generally end up with better long-term outcomes in this market.  Those that over-localise or overly rely on expats/foreigners, will likely fail for any number of reasons over time. It's a balancing game and it's hard. It requires constant attention and hard work. It's also very specific to industries and businesses themselves.  There is no one size fits all.

Persistence is something businesses with shorter reporting cycles struggle with in this market as well. China requires long-term energy, commitment and adaptation. The best long-term success stories in this market did not happen overnight nor did their success work out exactly as they planned.  They also had the right product or service for their chosen market in China.

What's your advice for aspiring global Australians to succeed in China or to get the most out of their overseas experience?

If you are going to come to China, come here with a lot of patience and plenty of energy.  Have an open mind and a good dose of curiosity. Learn some Chinese language and be prepared to travel as far and as wide as you can. China is an enormous and complicated country. You won't get a true sense of that staying only in Beijing or Shanghai.  

I would also suggest that Australians coming to China be mindful of their expectations. A lot of foreigners get frustrated in China and that can become unhealthy over time. Ensuring that you have the right outlets to deal with that is critical.  China is not going to change for you. 

Having lived in Melbourne, Sydney and Beijing before moving to Shanghai, what's your favourite city and why?

It turns out they are all different and all wonderful places to live and work and all for different reasons.  They are terrific places with very different cultures, histories and attractions. I have tried very hard to enjoy the upsides of each of the places I've lived and worked. It has made leaving each of them difficult.  Shanghai is a better place than Beijing for those with young children and we have three.  The reason for that is there is more space and fewer high pollution days.  That said, our kids were born in three different countries, so we strongly believe you can make things work anywhere.

What do you enjoy most living and working in Shanghai?

Every single day throws up something new and challenging. Never a dull moment. I enjoy seeing Australian businesses really give this market a go. I also enjoy helping Chinese investors get a better, more realistic sense of what they can achieve in Australia and the things they need to do to adapt themselves to our home market. 

Many businesses get frustrated by misunderstandings and misplaced expectations. That goes in both directions. It takes a long time to understand people with a different upbringing and development. It is not good enough to simply dismiss differences as flaws and difficulties that cannot be overcome. I enjoy the fact that I can meaningfully contribute to that and can assist parties get to agreement or even better avoid disputes.

Your go-to places for Australian coffee in Shanghai?

Anyone in working in our building, CITIC Square (the same building as the Australian Consulate in Shanghai), is almost certain to have seen me at Waga's.  My team call it my second office. I like to meet people over good coffee there.  It would be hard to say that's not a favourite. They know how I like my coffee. It was also the first Waga's in China, which I'm also keen to support. With kids on the weekend, the Jamaica Blue in JinQiao is certainly a favourite in our family as well – the sausage rolls a M&M biscuits go well with a well-made latte – but you do need the right people serving you as it can be hit and miss.

AsiaAdvanceShanghai, Born Global