Peter Arkell's Shanghai Insights

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance. 

Meet Peter Arkell, Managing Director at Carrington Day, former Chairman at AustCham Shanghai, and long time Advance member, who began his experience living in China more than fifteen years ago. Peter shared with Advance a snapshot into his Shanghai life, including how he perceives the Australian community is influencing culture there.

What does a typical day in Shanghai look like for you?

I have become addicted to counting my daily steps, although I am not a jogger but a brisk walker. My day starts pretty early so that I can get an hour’s worth of steps into my daily tally before breakfast. I have a park in my neighborhood that is only 500 steps in a circuit, which I loop around and around listening to my various favourite podcasts. I love the park and the life that is there, even so early in the morning. From old men with caged birds, to individuals doing Tai Chi, to groups dancing, to people playing cards, to people doing deals. It all seems like this community is micro China and it’s a great way to start the day. I tell friends that “China, it’s just a walk in the park”.

After that, there isn’t much that is typical in my day. If I’m in Shanghai there will be the office routine and often a business lunch or dinner. China, and in particular Shanghai, is a destination; not a hub or a place to pass through on the way to somewhere else. People come here to find out what all the fuss is about. I love to welcome visitors here to show them the city and its incredible life. I want those who are coming here for the first time to see the great potential that engagement with China can bring. We have visits from all walks of life; politicians, business people, the arts.

I save an hour after dinner for another walk so that I can hit my daily target and maintain my average steps over the year.

What does your role as Managing Director of Carrington Group involve?

My business started as a headhunting practice, helping international businesses, especially Australian, to find their way into this amazing country. That was fifteen years ago and our reputation has been built through its connection to the mining industry. When I arrived, China was just emerging as a market for Australian minerals and there was also great interest among the major and junior miners to explore China’s mineral assets. Being an Australian and connected with the mining sector was a natural fit and fortunately, there were no specialists looking after that sector. It was good timing.

Today, with a strong reputation and with longstanding relationships, our business has evolved into a couple of new dimensions while continuing our core business. We are applying the lessons learned in bringing foreign companies into China and now also working with the many Chinese corporations that are looking to enter international markets. We are helping them to find talent that can understand their business style and the business culture of that foreign market. Furthermore, the depth of relationships in the mining sector means that we are also expanding our “matchmaking” to include helping Chinese companies to identify the right projects in their international M&A.

In what ways has Shanghai evolved as an international business city over the past two decades?

It has been such a privilege to have a front row seat watching Shanghai step up as a great international city over the 15 years that I have been here. It was a great city when I arrived and it was unimaginable that it could continue that bursting of energy and vitality to the point that it has reached today. Yet it had set a course to be one of the world’s major cities and the momentum is unstoppable. It is evident in the cityscape with impressive towers in every direction to the horizon from my office in HuaiHai Road. At street level, the flagship stores of every major global brand are competing for the business of the 26 million people who live here and the millions who are visitors. The port is a logistical marvel. The amazing skyline of Pudong is barely 25 years old and watches across the river to the grand boulevard of the Bund that symbolises Shanghai’s glory days of 100 years ago. Yet its towers and skyscrapers, which were built as the welcome mat to the world’s financial titans, are recognisable around the world as Shanghai.

But it’s more than the buildings and the infrastructure, there is a vibrancy in Shanghai that seems to be part of the city’s DNA. It has a self-belief that it belongs in the company of the great international business cities and that it has not peaked yet. That is an incredible business environment to be part of. We see the major Chinese corporations matching it with the major multinational companies in the domestic market here and then using Shanghai as their platform for their global ambitions.

In what ways is/has the Australian community influencing culture in Shanghai?

I was the Chairman of AustCham in Shanghai for four years. That was a great experience because it provided me with a close-up view of Australian participation in Shanghai life. Our community is one of the most visible of all the nations. The Chamber matches up with the American and European Chambers in size and influence in Shanghai. We have been very good at bringing slices of Australian culture to Shanghai with Australians at the forefront of the hospitality industry. Some of the city’s finest and friendliest hotels, restaurants and bars are run by Australians. A leader in this respect, Michelle Garnaut and her M on the Bund has been a trailblazer. Not just for her iconic restaurant but also for bringing to the city the international Shanghai Literary Festival and regular pleasant Sunday afternoons of chamber music or literary discussions throughout the year. 

It is great to see such fabulous institutions as the Australian Ballet perform here to huge audiences and a highlight last year was to watch the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on stage with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. It was an experience so exciting and so rare. We are very lucky to be living in a city that can attract and stage such events.

This month our monthly AustCham “Aussie Drinks” will be on the rooftop of the iconic Peace Hotel, overlooking the Bund and the Pudong skyline, with a jazz band and hundreds of the Australian community. And later in the month, the biggest ball on the Shanghai social calendar is the Great Aussie Ball. 

Of course, what could be more emblematic of Australian culture than AFL. We had a match played here this year at a beautiful art deco stadium that was built in the 1930’s by Chiang Kai Shek for military parades; that was pretty amazing.

What is the biggest misconception about living in China?

I do find it curious that there are not more of Australia’s major companies on the ground here in China. This massive market is on our doorstep, yet there seems to be still some nervousness on the part of our bigger companies. It is a puzzle to me. Perhaps there are concerns that China is different and too hard to get an understanding of the business culture and the way that it operates. I encourage Australian business to jump in now. There are many people in the Australian community with many years’ experience here who can help to clear the path forward. China has become perhaps the most important market in the world and has an impact on all business, whether companies are here on the ground or not. In my view, in this extremely competitive environment which has participants from all corners of the world, as well as extremely sharp Chinese companies, Australian business can have many competitive advantages. Our time zones match and we have the China Australia Free Trade Agreement just for starters. Australia’s mining industry has shown what a game changer China has been and the benefits that have flowed to our economy through that relationship. It gives me confidence that our companies from other sectors can follow that lead and also enjoy great success here.

I’ll look forward to meeting more friends from the Advance community when they come to Shanghai.