Thirty years ago China and Asia simply weren't on the map for New Zealand's rural economy. Today, ASB general manager for rural banking Mark Heer says, they are in everyone's sights.
Heer says this reflects changes in New Zealand's export markets. Today his rural customers are focused on China.
"It's across the board for our retail industries: meat, horticulture, forestry, wine, seafood and, most of all dairy. Within that, the really big product is milk powder, but the others are growing fast."
New Zealand creates a significant agricultural surplus. "Our farmers produce enough food to feed about 45 million people. Nearly five million of people at home eat the food, the other 40 million plus are overseas.
"In round numbers we export ten times as much as we eat. That's a huge amount in New Zealand terms, but relatively small in Chinese terms.
"One challenge for our farmers is to sustainably increase the number. The other is to add value. We are able to produce the highest quality food and customers are willing to pay premiums for high quality."
Gearing up for higher volumes and higher quality production requires investment. Heer says the bank is seeing a lot of interest in investing in agriculture from China. He says Chinese investors fall into two camps; those who come here as residents looking to invest in agriculture and those in China who want to invest in the same areas.
This has been controversial in some circles, but Heer says the number of agricultural transactions involving overseas investors is still small, although there is growing interest. "We're seeing a much greater awareness of New Zealand and what it has to offer - we need to see that as a compliment."
ASB sees inbound Chinese investors through the bank's migrant banking business. Heer says this has been operating for 20 years now and there has been a noticeable increase in Chinese migrants in recent years. The bank has worked with the Chinese community and has a high profile with Auckland immigrants through its sponsorship of the annual New Year Lantern Festival.
Heer says the ASB's strategy in China is twofold and distinct from other New Zealand banks. In part it piggybacks off its Australian parent The Commonwealth Bank of Australia, which has a sizeable footprint in the country. Heer says the group also has shareholdings in a couple of Chinese banks: "China is a big country. It isn't really a single market, language, customs and even the way of doing business can be different in different regions.
"We don't have an on-the-ground presence everywhere, so we also partner with a number of correspondent banks."
Rural exporters dealing with any overseas market are concerned with much the same things: when are they paid, how are they paid and what currency is the transaction conducted in. This has become much easier with direct conversion between the New Zealand dollar and renminbi: "Dealing with China used to mean two currency transactions, converting into US dollars along the way this meant two transaction costs and two sets of currency risk".
Heer says ASB offers a complete suite of banking products to smooth the way for exporters including the ability to hedge currency to guard against fluctuation risks.
In recent years Heer has been taking some ASB rural customers with him on visits to China. He says: "It's one thing to tell them about the scale of the Chinese market, it's another to take them so they can get a feel for it. We're now doing the same thing in Singapore and Indonesia".