Insights from Finnish Business Council’s new director in Shanghai

On 1 May 2015 Finnish-Swedish Mr Oskar Helling started his position as the new Executive Director of the Finnish Business Council in Shanghai (FBCS), succeeding Mr Timo Laurila.

This gave ScandAsia the perfect reason to learn more about FBCS, a very vibrant business chamber in one of the world’s true metropolitans, and of course its new executive director.

Prior to FBCS, Oskar Helling was partner and Analyst with Asia8 Group providing regular China-analysis to a Finnish audience via the Kiina8–weekly analysis.

Oskar-FBCSOskar is no stranger to FBCS as he has for a long time developed the FBCS as Editor-in-Chief for FinnBiz, member of the board, secretary of the board and also as Executive Director.

His involvement with FBCS started when a new Editor-in-Chief was needed for their member newsletter.

“With that I became acquainted with a lot of people and also the Finnish business community.”

“The old saying that China is ‘a journalist’s wet dream but statistician’s nightmare’ is very true. It is very difficult to find hard facts on China, but at the same time there is an abundance of interesting and fascinating stories,” he comments how he got into journalism there.

“In my earlier career I had always enjoyed the process analyzing problems and writing up a coherent description and a proposal for solution. I guess the journalist-shoes were fairly easy to fill with that background.”

Once coming over to China back in 2007 he says he started out from scratch. He had earlier worked within management, Financial-IT and general systems development but was not going to be stuck in a particular field based on old merits.

Realizing going east
He describes the move to China as a planned and conscious effort.

“After having visited China and Shanghai as a tourist in 2005, I realized that its energy, growth and dynamism were things we wanted to be part of. A few years later I landed in Shanghai. At that time I was a trailing spouse having left my old career behind me.”

Fast forward to 2015 and Oskar has already been active with FBCS for a number of years, now in the role to steer this association further into the future and taking things one step further.

In addition to tending to the daily activities, he is now actively working together with the board of directors to develop new forms of services for the members of FBCS.

“As I got involved with developing the FBCS and the Finnish chamber activities in China some 7 years ago, I see as a clear goal now to lift the chamber operations yet to a new level by not only being active in China but to also take a larger role in Finland.”

“Landing” services
In forming the future strategy he elaborates: “As with any national chamber of commerce, the FBCS exists for its members’ benefit. It’s not enough to just arrange events and connect people. That reaches only part of our membership. Other services we are now developing is helping our members by communicating the realities of the operating environment in China to headquarters in Finland and companies preparing to enter the Chinese markets. This we will do by newsletters, analyses and speaking engagements. For instance, we are happy to help out or members by arranging speakers when they receive guests from HQ. Also, we make a conscious effort in spreading China-info in Finland.”

“As the Semi-governmental Consulting agency Finpro has been sold and ended its for-profit operations in China, we are seeing a definite need for some kind of “landing” services for Finnish companies looking at China,” he continues. “We will not go into market-entry consulting – there are plenty of other organizations that can do that better – but we see a clear need for helping out in the first steps. Often this entails having discussions with people and trying to remove unnecessary costs of the learning curve. We have among our members collectively thousands of years of China experience – naturally we want our new members to benefit from that so that they do not need to repeat the mistakes of others.”

“A very good way to do this is to work together with the Finnish innovation hub, FinChi, where we and most other Team Finland China–actors are located. Where FinChi can provide the hardware as in offices and other services, we can provide the Software as in networks, valuable advice and other connections.”

FBCS now functions as the private-sector arm of ‘Team Finland China’.

“Naturally, we don’t have the same resources as our governmental counterparts, but we are developing more and more forms of co-operation. One example of this is that we have our office in the FinChi–centre and will as of this fall have our workstation together with the other TF–China actors.”

As for collaborating with other stakeholders, the collaboration together with the other Nordic chambers in Shanghai is already very tight.

“Apart from cross-marketing our events and creating a better networking experience for our members, we also share experiences and best practices. With regard to other Finnish chambers, we are also finding ways for better collaboration. One great example is our Annual Publication in which we now as a first step include greetings from other Finnish chambers in Greater China, namely Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. We hope to broaden this collaboration next year to produce a China-wide member directory of Finnish companies active here.”

The printed version of FinnBiz has been discontinued, with a focus on reaching members more promptly, relying on e-mail, their website, and this annual publication.

Connecting people
On the events front the Finns in Shanghai is very active, except during the peak summer months.

“Scandinavians make an exodus to their home countries after Midsummer. It’s not business as usual in July-August, but this year we tried to arrange an event in the “dead zone”. Together with the Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Swiss Chambers we managed to get together a decent crowd to listen to the analyst of one of our Supporting members, SEB.”

“Yes, events are indeed the visible part of a chamber’s activities. However, there is a lot going on behind the scenes that usually does not get that much attention. One of the most important activities of a chamber of commerce is ‘Connecting People’ – yes, I blatantly steal the old Nokia slogan! I often handle multiple connection requests per day putting people in touch with each other. Often at the request of one party, but sometimes also based on earlier discussions that develop in my mind into a ‘Hey, I need to put those two in touch with each other!’ insight.”

As for the number of Finnish companies in Shanghai–today app. 120 corporate members– the trend is absolutely positive, according to Oskar.

“Interestingly enough, I see a steady flow of new companies showing interest in China. It seems that even though China is one of the most difficult environments in the world to operate in, Finnish companies are learning to deal with the challenges. I am happy that the FBCS can be part of making this happen.”

About Joakim Persson

Freelance business and lifestyle photojournalist

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