Reflections on China
Being at the very first summit in 2010 provides Mr Geir Sviggum, Chairman at Wikborg Rein, with an interesting perspective on its growth after the event’s return to Shanghai.
He shares his thoughts on the NABS through the years along and reflects upon his time in China.
When Mr Geir Sviggum, Wikborg Rein Partner and Chairman, and Mr Vidar Andersen, Head of Corporate Banking International at DNB, shared the stage at the Norway-Asia Business Summit 2019 to discuss the very first event nearly a decade earlier, their conversation turned to an amusing anecdote about the panel Mr Sviggum was on during the first event.
“I remember someone on stage talking about how they believed investment in China had reached its peak level at that time,” Mr Sviggum told the crowd. “Of course, as I look around the room now and see so many people interested and active in China, that prediction may have been a little off.”
Indeed it was. With more than
1,000 people in attendance at NABS 2019, it was the biggest Summit to date and showcased both the growing interest Norwegian companies have in China and the need for such events.
“We thought it would be very meaningful for the Norwegian business community in Asia to gather once a year and share experiences. In 2010, Shanghai hosted the magnificent World Expo, the largest ever. We therefore started with Shanghai as a venue for the first NABS,” Mr Sviggum explained. “It felt as the epicentre of all excitement at the time. I remember that there was so much going on in Shanghai at the time that we had to compete for speakers who were also invited elsewhere at conflicting happenings.”
The most recent event brought with it a who’s who of speakers from the business and government sectors with both Norway and China thoroughly represented. Many of those who spoke at NABS 2019 was something that left a lasting impression on Mr Sviggum.
“Many speakers at the event impressed me. Cilia Holmes Indahl CEO at Katapult; Therese Trulsen, Senior Lawyer and Chief Representative at Wikborg Rein China; Mary Boyd, Director and The Economist Corporate Network in Shanghai; and Mr Vidar Helgesen, Norwegian Special Envoy for Ocean, were just four of them,” Mr Sviggum said. “It was also really nostalgic for me to be on stage again with my old friend, the very impressive Mr Andersen of DNB.”
Another thing to come out of NABS 2019 was the continued evolution of the event. The Summit in Shanghai during 2010 and the following year in Singapore happened to be much smaller affairs where the focus was more internal. Even in the following years as the Summit moved across Asia, the focused remained on gathering the Norwegian community
with roughly 100 to 200 people attending during any given event.
The 2018 Summit, which returned to Singapore for a second time, saw a notable increase in both interest and attendance with more emphasis placed on strengthening Norwegian industry in the region through networking and knowledge sharing. That would serve as a springboard for NABS 2019
“I was impressed with the number of people gathered, and not least the level of people in attendance. The concept has changed somewhat since 2010. There was a time where we focused on gathering the Norwegian community in different Asian hubs, but this was more of a platform for Chinese and Norwegian business leaders to meet and interact,” Mr Sviggum noted. “I would like to compliment everyone who attended on their interest in China. Understanding China is so important in order to understand the world in the 21th century.”
For Mr Sviggum, NABS 2019 was also a chance for him to return to the country where he was based for the best part of six years with Wikborg Rein. In some ways, the change in the Summit mirrored the change he saw in the host country.
“I lived in China from 2008 until 2013. I had the privilege of traveling to 21 Chinese provinces during my time there,” Mr Sviggum recalled. “China is changing extremely rapidly, but I am happy to see that the Chinese characteristics still remain. It is also important to note that China has so many things. There are great diversities in China, still, six years after I left.”
There have also been noticeable changes in Wikborg Rein’s Shanghai operations since Mr Sviggum moved to a different position with the firm earlier in the decade. Of course, this is to be expected with growing interest in the country from the Norwegian business community.
“Our practice has grown a lot since 2008. We handle disputes, transactions, compliance work and other forms of advisory,” Mr Sviggum pointed out. “I believe a trend we have seen is that assignments are getting larger and more complex.”
Part of that shift owes itself to a more diverse business mix. When Mr Sviggum lived in China, he estimated that 75 percent of Norwegian businesses active in the country were related to energy and maritime activities. That has changed in the past few years and the business mix is currently much more diverse.
One question people want to know the answer to is just how different the business environment is today than when he was working in China. Mr Sviggum believes the picture is mixed with some things being easier now than they were when he lived in China. On the other hand, new challenges have arisen that businesses must consider.
In terms of the most common challenges Wikborg Rein clients in China have faced over the years, the firm continues to see some old problem rear their ugly head while new issues also come up.
“Many clients have struggled with cultural aspects. There have been many examples of challenges related to unhappy business marriages and Norwegian investors choosing the wrong partner in the first place. There have been intellectual property challenges as well,” Mr Sviggum stated. “I must also emphasise confusion due to fastpace development of legal framework and sometimes lacking predictability in regulatory circumstances. I believe there are few challenges faced by Norwegians in China we have not been involved with in one way or the other!”
He continued, “If you are working in China or considering it, prepare very well and use an advisor with a mixed cultural background, meaning that they understand both the culture you are coming from and going to.”
The entire relationship needs to be looked at as a two-way street. Both China and Norway can learn and partner with each other on multiple levels. For example, there are opportunities for knowledge sharing between the two countries with Mr Sviggum citing China’s technology transformation coming out of Xinghua University and other hubs being something that is worth watching and learning from. Inbound investment to Norway must also be considered.
“Norway has in recent years been one of the most attractive destinations for Chinese investment in Europe. We see large interest in our energy and maritime industries. We also see keen interest in our northern areas and the Arctic,” Mr Sviggum stated.
Looking back to the first NABS and the panel he sat on, Mr Sviggum isn’t ready to make any proclamations about investment peaking on either side. In fact, with relations between Mr Sviggum improving, it could be some time before we do see that peak.
“I believe there is still lots of potential. It is simply incredible to see the level of business interaction that took place during the years with a challenging bilateral relationship. Now, after normalisation of bilateral ties, we see further development in the complexity and magnitude of Sino-Norwegian relations,” Mr Sviggum concluded. “A free trade agreement will contribute to further growth. We have much to learn from one another, and I do not believe we are close to the peak still.”
Above left and above: Mr Geir Sviggum, Chairman of Wikborg Rein with Mr Vidar Andersen, Head of International Division at DNB. The two gentlemen together with Erik Borgen (above), Chairman of Singapore-Norway Chamber of Commerce and at the time Chairman of Norwegian Business Association Singapore were instrumental in organising the summit in 2010 and in 2019 they were again participating at NABS 2019 in Shanghai.