Visits to New Zealand by German presidents are relatively rare events.

The whirlwind trip to this country in November by German head of state Frank-Walter Steinmeier was the first by a German President in 16 years.

The visit received a modest amount of media attention for the former German Foreign Minister with most focus being on the ceremonial, "photo op" aspects.

The relatively low-key nature of the trip actually belied the true significance of Germany as a trade partner for New Zealand - since 2012 our leading EU trade partner (leapfrogging the UK). And while the President's time in the country was limited, he came with a strong wish to bolster bilateral trade between the two countries - and support the imminent Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations between New Zealand and the European Union.

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The FTA was a key topic in his discussions here with German subsidiaries in New Zealand, along with the growing influence and role of China, and the impact of Brexit - which the President was surprised wasn't more to the fore as a concern, given New Zealand's traditional links with the UK.

Steinmeier's agenda included broader discussions with the Government about issues such as global and regional security, climate change, migration and integration. But he was especially keen to explore the opportunities for increased bilateral trade and spoke much of the shared values between the two nations - in politics and business - and of the warm regard for this country in Germany.

That's borne out by the popularity among Germans of visiting New Zealand. Last year almost 100,000 German visitors came here and they are seen as the highest spenders per capita, staying an average of four weeks. Around 16,000 Germans also arrived on working holiday visas.

But it's in trade where the prominence of Germany (and the EU) often gets missed.

Germany is New Zealand's sixth biggest trading partner - in 2016, bilateral trade in products and services was worth just under $5 billion.

In terms of imports, New Zealand brought in $3.379b of German goods and services including cars, commercial vehicles, building products, appliances and machinery used in our export industries.

In the year to June 2017, New Zealand in turn exported $1.44b in goods and services to Germany - around $650 million of which was goods, principally food and wine.

In fact, the figure is probably higher given much of the fruit and wine sent to Germany enters - and is recorded as entering - via Dutch, Belgian or British ports, so doesn't figure in the statistics.

That significance jumps up for the European Union - New Zealand's third most important bilateral trade partner but number one on the list of importing nations (or trade blocs).

Scientific collaboration

Underpinning the trade relationship between the two countries - and also little publicised - is a bilateral, scientific and technical relationship that has been in place for 40 years, fostering a number of valuable and exciting research and development initiatives in areas like biotechnology and sustainable urban development. There are currently around 200 German scientists working in New Zealand.

Keeping an eye on things here is the German-New Zealand Chamber of Commerce (GNZCC) which advises German companies in New Zealand and New Zealand companies doing business in Germany - its function is truly bilateral.

The chamber looks after more than 120 German subsidiaries in New Zealand along with over 230 other companies with interests in trade between the two countries, including importers and manufacturers.

And there is a great deal of potential to expand trade.

From our members we have gained a strong sense of the opportunities in the marketplace and the GNZCC is currently focusing on openings for German technology in the building and infrastructure areas in New Zealand - as well as those Pacific Islands New Zealand has close links with, where renewable energy is also of high interest.

German subsidiaries in New Zealand also see potential to help this country raise standards and improve our know-how in a number of areas such as food quality, training, sustainability and technology.

Talks are already under way, for example, to bring Germany's world renowned vocational training system, Duale Ausbildung, to this country.

Germany in turn, having the world's largest market for organic produce, sees enormous potential for Kiwi exporters of organics including wine and foods, as well as natural products such as cosmetics, and welcomes investment in Germany to help bring those products to market.

New Zealand exporters would benefit from producing food products more to specific requirements, particularly in the organics area, than simply exporting commodity items.

Issues and challenges

Talks were also frank on the issues and challenges facing bilateral trade.

For Germany, understandably, distance and the size of the New Zealand market are obstacles to trade, given the large markets on their doorstep in Europe. But New Zealand is attractive for a number of reasons:

• It offers access to the Asian marketplace - as seen in the recent acquisition of T&G Global by German giant BayWa
• New Zealand provides a test market for companies to try out products prior to a major market launch
• Our dairy industry is sizeable enough to justify the effort.

German subsidiaries in New Zealand also highlighted a number of issues during their discussions with Steinmeier, including a lack of skilled labour in key areas and the excessive "red tape" in bringing workers to New Zealand where required, delays in business acquisition where land is involved and other legal impediments to investment, and less-than-satisfactory training structures.

In general, New Zealand companies need to see Germany as a large market of highly selective consumers with high discretionary income, and do their homework to ensure their product is a match for that very discerning market. "She'll be right" won't cut it.

It might also be useful for companies to focus on a region of Germany rather than the whole country to develop their export business, as Kiwi footwear company Bobux did recently.

And don't let language be a barrier. New Zealand has a lot more in common with Germany than many people realise, and the will is there for the relationship to grow.

- ​Monique Surges is the chief executive of the German New Zealand Chamber of Commerce, based in Auckland.