To Infiniti, And Beyond…

When a Japanese company did it in 1989, polite people described the chairman as "eccentric".

When a Korean and a Dutch company did the same thing ten years ago, the Hong Kong media queried the sanity of their senior management.

And very quietly, a whole host of companies have done the same thing in the decade since: a supermarket chain from Britain; another from Germany; a department store chain from Sweden; entire units of major financial services companies among many, many others. A British education group is in the process of going the same route as I write.

There have been some other straws in the wind too: rumours HSBC were thinking of coming back (some senior personnel did) and the head of one of the big four accounting firms, KPMG, relocated here earlier this year.

But until a Japanese car company did it too, and gave its reasons in public, the concept didn’t really capture much attention.

That all changed last week when the Nissan car company of Japan announced that it was moving the global headquarters of its Infiniti luxury car brand to Hong Kong.

The reason CEO Carlos Ghosn gave for the decision was classic in its cogency and simplicity: we want to be close to our customers.

The additional underlying reasons are the ones Hong Kong officials have been beating the drum about all these years: low taxes, skilled workforce, English as an official language, rule of law etc.

So what the gallant Mr Wada did with the Yaohan department store group all those years ago, and Lucky Goldstar and Philips did when they formed their joint venture LG Philips Displays, to earn contempt and even abuse, has now become acceptable, even mainstream.

It is suddenly reasonable after all for foreign companies to put global operations in Hong Kong, though still newsworthy enough to make the front page of this newspaper’s main news section.

All the publicity will have my former colleagues in InvestHK shaking their heads in bewilderment. They have known about these global operations moving in for years. Indeed, they have been working flat out to make it happen. They have even tried to publicise it, but positive news about Hong Kong just doesn’t sell newspapers.

I still have vivid memories of the LG/Philips press conference. Only I attended from the government, no-one else was interested. Imagine that, a global headquarters and the best they could get was the Director-General of Investment Promotion. In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew would have met them at the airport. In Shanghai, the Mayor would have rolled out the red carpet with his own hands. In Hong Kong….well it’s enough to make you weep.

The Korean media attended and were very polite, asking about the future of the company (plant openings, closures etc) and the future of the technology.

The Dutch media were also there, asking many of the same questions, with an additional angle about whether the two companies would adopt the joint venture approach for other products they had in common.

Then it was the turn of our local media. Why not Shanghai? What’s wrong with Singapore? Anywhere else you could have got special tax concessions and other benefits, what on earth made you choose Hong Kong, you must be crazy.

Finally the French CEO lost his temper (I can still picture his face now) and exploded "If your choice of business location depends on special concessions, there’s something fundamentally wrong with your business plan!"

Not understanding the answer, nobody printed it. The global opening earned the amazing coverage of four sentences at the end of another article on the inside back page of the Business Section.

So thank you Mr Ghosn, for finally putting the record straight.

As we Buzz Lightyear fans like to say: To Infiniti, and Beyond!