John Thomson & Partners is an award-winning practice of architects and community-planners with studios in London, Edinburgh and Shanghai. They specialise in harnessing human energy to create new places and breathe new life into old ones. Since 1991, JTP have delivered successful projects for both public and private sectorsthroughout the UK, Europe, China, Russia and the Middle East.
Until 2008, Russia had been an important market for JTP. However, when the global economic downturn struck, the Russian market for large-scale urban development collapsed and the practice was faced with filling the gaps left in its business. For several years, JTP had been receiving enquiries from China via Chinese associate Ying Ying Tian who had extensive contacts. The practice had previously felt unable to pursue these leads but at the start of 2009 it was keen to explore the potential opportunities in China.
Joanna Allen, a Partner at JTP, explained their situation, “This was very different to our other international projects where we had only responded to opportunities that had been given to us. In China we would be actively promoting ourselves to entirely new contacts.” Joanna realised they needed to understand the market better to ensure that they could tailor their offer to the demand, gain a clear picture of the regions to approach and who could support them; they also wanted to know how to conduct business in China.
To help her undertake this research as effectively as possible, Joanna contacted The Export Marketing Research Scheme (EMRS).The EMRS is a UKTI Scheme providing professional advice and funding to help businesses understand the dynamics of a potential overseas market before creating an appropriate strategy for launching in this market.
Joanna met with Richard Gilbert, Research Adviser, who helped her to construct a research plan, “My colleague Ms Tian was very knowledgeable about the area around Shanghai and Hangzhou, but other parts of China were unfamiliar to us so it was vital to talk to people and investigate the market potential of various different regions. Without the scheme, we would have concentrated our efforts solely on Shanghai and restricted our growth potential.”
Armed with a full itinerary of meetings, Joanna and her Chinese-speaking colleague spent 14 days in China, visiting Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Chongqing, and Shenzhen. They talked to developers in the public and private sector, local government officials, architects, engineers and university professors.
The surprising results were invaluable in helping JTP to create their strategy. Although, on paper, the best place appeared to be the second tier cities where development was at its peak, the research revealed a different story. As Joanna explained, “We quickly discovered that many of these rapidly developing areas lacked the sophistication of the larger cities. They tended to be building large areas fast and at a very high density without many social, cultural or environmental considerations. To succeed in these areas, we would have had to change our philosophy, which we weren’t prepared to do.” Instead, Joanna discovered JTP’s approach was a very good fit with the areas around Shanghai, Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shenzhen. The research also clearly showed a face-to-face approach was essential for doing business in China.
As a consequence, JTP teamed up with a local partner in Hangzhou and opened a small office in Shanghai focusing initially on the major conurbations. The office was invaluable for being able to visit clients regularly and build strong relationships. By 2011, within two years of the trip, JTP had won 20 projects in China, accounting for 15% of its turnover.
Fast forward to 2014 and JTP’s business in China has gone from strength to strength. By continuing to develop their understanding of the market, JTP’s approach has evolved. “We now know when the major planning cycles occur and, although still learning, how to work out contracts and make sure that we are paid. Over the last few years there have been many changes in the country and we are beginning to work with many smaller cities to develop locally sustainable communities which is very rewarding”, explained Joanna.
JTP are justifiably proud of their Chinese urban developments, winning competitions for: regeneration of Dalian Bay – providing homes and work for up to a million people, Eco-town award in Suzhou and Future City Competition in Hangzhou. They have also just carried out their first Community Planning Weekend. JTP now employ 85 staff, nine of whom focus on China. As Joanna enthuses, “It’s great for us to see towns we designed 4 years ago now being built.
Joanna was very happy with her experiences with the Export Marketing Research Scheme, “The advice we received helped us to carry out our research in the most efficient and effective way, enabling us to pinpoint whereabouts to target our services, ensuring our offering was appropriate for the market, and helping us to continuously develop our market understanding to build a sustainable business in China for the future.”
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