Navigating web of connections in China

Updated: 2012-01-29 10:54

By Meng Jing (China Daily)

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A Czech road warrior draws on his lifelong Chinese passion to navigate web of connections, Meng Jing reports.

As China's Spring Festival gets into full swing, Miroslav Kolesar has a lot on his plate, and it's not just dumplings or some other Chinese New Year fare. Kolesar, chief representative in China of PPF Group, a Czech financial and investment company, has been traveling across the country three days a week paying courtesy visits to local government officials to thank them for their support over the past year and looking for suggestions for his company in the year to come. With PPF Group, communicating with governments is Kolesar's main job, a task fraught with difficulties for a foreigner.

The Czech man, 38, has spent 15 years in China, and in that time says he has met countless government officials from the premier, Wen Jiabao, to village directors in remote mountain areas in the country's west.

His work helped PPF Group's subsidiary, Home Credit, become the only foreign-owned company to be given a license to provide consumer loans in China. Kolesar says success comes in regarding yourself and your business as local, a skill he seems to have in spades.

The fluent Chinese speaker is a sinophile who started to learn the language in the late 1980s.

"At that time there were few people in my hometown who had the opportunity to learn English, let alone Chinese," Kolesar says, believing it was destiny that put him in contact with an English teacher who was an overseas Chinese.

As a teenager in eastern Slovakia, Kolesar urged the teacher to give him private lessons in Chinese. At the root of this wish to learn the language was a desire to learn more about China after being given a taste of its culture through reading.

Kolesar then chose to go to Charles University in Prague, one of the oldest and most famous universities in central Europe, to study sinology, taking in Chinese language, history, culture, philosophy - in short, almost anything related to China.

One of the most important lessons he was taught, he says, was "never say no to Chinese people". The response should be "Yes, but" because of Chinese people's distaste for confrontation.

It became a golden rule for Kolesar when he decided to work in China after graduating, and especially after he joined PPF Group's China office in 2004 and started to help the company deal with government relations.

Despite the range and volume of Kolesar's negotiations with government officials, he reckons he has never had a confrontation with anyone, and he has some pearls of wisdom for anyone willing to listen: "If you have different opinions on certain things, try to slowly, gradually explain. If you cannot reach agreement or find a conclusion at (that time), put it aside. Don't push hard; wait for some time later, talk about other topics then pick it up again. Be patient and listen carefully."

Confrontation does not help when asking for support from governments, he says, and it does no good for those who want to build personal relations in China.

Personal connections can be decisive in business success, he says, and people may trust you more as a business person if they know you personally.

The fruit of Kolesar's mastery in handling personal relationships is that his friends are as likely to be Chinese as Western, unlike with some foreigners in China who can spend many years here but remain stuck in an expatriate world with little deep contact with Chinese.

"It is natural for Chinese people doing business in China to develop personal relationships," he says. "It is natural for European people to develop personal relationships when doing business in Europe. The same should apply to European people who do business in China."

In his year-end courtesy visits to local governments, he includes his former business partners even if there is no new business project to talk about.

"It is not right to turn your backs (on) people who were nice to you and who helped you. It wouldn't help if you look for a long-term partnership in China."

Of course, his fluency in Chinese is of no small help in building personal relationships. The idea of a deep friendship transacted through an interpreter does not quite seem to gel, and Kolesar barely ever speaks anything other than Chinese in his dealings.

Indeed, he says, by dint of his being immersed in Chinese, his English has become rusty. Several times during the interview for this story he was stuck for an English word and resorted to Chinese.

Apart from having communications and language skills, Kolesar says, companies need to be good at what they do to be successful in China, which is one of the key reasons that PPF was granted the license to operate consumer finance in China in 2010, he says.

"At that time China didn't have this kind of financial products. So we used our experience from other countries to convince Chinese governments and regulators in China's financial sector that it can work in China and help the country restructure its economy from an export-based economy to domestic consumption."

Having know-how in an industry makes communicating with governments a lot easier, he says.

Just as Kolesar appreciates the importance of companies needing to be good at what they do, he applies the same standard to governments, and says they have been becoming more and more professional and transparent.

"They have their expectations and they know what they need to do for the region or the industry they represent. Ten years ago it was not easy to arrange a meeting with government officials. You (might) need to pull some personal connections if you didn't know them directly. But now, even if you know no one, you can get their contact from their official websites, phone them and arrange a meeting if your project intrigues them."

After more than 20 years of living and breathing China and its language, the mind behind Kolesar's blue eyes is nearer than most foreigners in knowing what makes the country tick - even if his beverage of choice is still coffee rather than tea.

Last April he was elected vice-president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce, which represents 1,600 European companies that do business in China.

Kolesar says he wants to use his knowledge of China to help the chamber build a positive image among Chinese government officials.

These days many people learn Chinese with the country's economy and their career prospects foremost in mind, but 20 years ago he was "simply excited about Chinese culture", he says.

Fifteen years after coming to China, that enthusiasm seems undiminished, and for his wife and three children who are aged 6, 3 and 1 Beijing is home, and will remain so, he says.

Ouyang Chunxue contributed to the story. You may contact the writers at