Tim McCready talks Auckland, infrastructure, and Chinese investment with ICBC NZ chief executive Karen Hou.
You have been living in Auckland for a while now. How do you see its future?
Auckland is a beautiful, attractive city. I have been living here now for three years, and every year it becomes even better. There are signs of growth everywhere.
I have lived and worked in a lot of cities around the world, but Auckland stands out because although the city is relatively expansive and feels big, the actual population is very low.
This, combined with Auckland's beautiful weather, climate, scenery and multi-cultural population makes it a wonderful place to live.
However, increasingly Auckland's infrastructure is lacking. As Auckland has grown in population the infrastructure hasn't kept up.
Auckland Council has tried very hard to meet people's requirements. They have big plans to make the city more usable.
More apartments, hotels, transportation links and other infrastructure projects are underway.
As one example, the New Zealand International Convention Centre (NZICC) will greatly improve Auckland's capacity to host world class conferences and exhibitions, which will provide yet another reason to attract people from all over the world.
But the key challenge is making sure the required infrastructure developments happen to ensure the city continues to remain as great as it is now into the future.
The new Finance Minister Grant Robertson is looking to the private sector to finance major transport and housing projects in Auckland.
Do you see an opportunity for Chinese investment?
For Auckland, the government or local government can't possibly fund everything that is needed. For New Zealand to quickly see results from infrastructure projects, it will be important to use public-private partnerships (PPPs) to bring in significant investment alongside the funds of the government.
ICBC NZ has been shortlisted several times for recent infrastructure syndication loan tenders, and although we are yet to secure a successful deal, our team has become increasingly experienced in the local market.
It takes a lot of time and effort to prepare a bid, but our commitment to this shows our dedication to being involved in successful infrastructure project finance here.
Chinese investment presents a lot of opportunity for Auckland. Over the past few years, China has very quickly developed its infrastructure - in areas like energy, telecommunications and water, but also massive transportation projects that link the country together.
Where local enterprises in New Zealand are struggling to meet the infrastructure shortage, Chinese companies can help them to increase capital, access high quality materials, and reduce cost.
Are Public Private Partnerships popular in China?
Yes, one of the most popular PPP models used in China for delivering major infrastructure projects is called a BOT (build, operate, transfer). With this model, the government uses the private sector to design, build and run an infrastructure project. After a period of time the asset is transferred back to the government.
This structure relies on the private sector, but the government supports the private sector to help with regulatory hurdles and ensuring the repayment of the investment makes the project worthwhile.
As an example, when establishing a subway: the cost is designed from the outset, including how to repay the investment.
If there is not enough money to repay the investment through the subway alone, the government can help by using other developments associated with the subway - such as the related commercial areas - to go towards the repayment of the project.
That way, getting resources for infrastructure projects is easier because the risk of repayment is lowered.
Is ICBC's client base actively looking to do deals here?
Yes. We have already helped Chinese companies come to New Zealand and understand the bidding process for projects. Although there have not been many successful bids, our Chinese customers are increasingly seeking out opportunities here.
ICBC is the largest bank in the world, and works with the best companies. This means we are able to ensure the highest standard of Chinese companies enter the market to help with infrastructure projects.
We have now been operating in New Zealand for four years. Over this time, we have progressed significantly - we have more than NZ$1.5b of assets in this market - mostly to local customers.
We've introduced new technologies and products such as an e-commerce platform to make it easier for New Zealand export companies to do business in China, and we help local companies connect with companies in China.
We also introduced a dual currency credit card, which can be used locally for New Zealand dollar transactions as well as in renminbi while in China, making visiting China more convenient. ICBC hopes that we can continue to increase the links between the two countries.
What can Auckland learn from China in terms of our mounting infrastructure projects?
China's Government plays an important role in the country's infrastructure. The government considers the future of the country, makes plans, and ensures projects are delivered quickly.
What people may not realise is that China has become very strong in construction, operating at an interna tional standard. As an example, Chinese companies have played a role in construction projects for the Singapore and Hong Kong subway.
To strengthen the local construction capability here, we need more labour and a lower cost of materials.
The use of Chinese companies can make the cost relatively lower than others due to labour, scale, and the cost of materials. At the same time, Chinese technology, management and safety are world-leading.
Should New Zealand take greater advantage of the skilled labour that China can provide?
Nearly everyone in the world wants to immigrate to New Zealand - for the reasons I outlined earlier.
This provides New Zealand with the rare opportunity to identify the particular skills that are most needed here, and get the right people to match.
For this reason, access to labour should not be a problem in this country. Rather than constricting the volume of people that can come and live here, New Zealand should look towards implementing a policy that will select the people that are needed.
The use of short-term and special visas can bring skilled workers in that can help with construction.
This type of visa is really helpful to fill the labour shortages and rapidly advance infrastructure projects.
China has some great inter-city transportation links, such as the line between Beijing and Tianjin that has cut travel time from three hours to around 30 minutes. Do you think Auckland can learn anything from this?
I think that in the long term, it will be good for New Zealand to be more evenly developed, and not just focused on one or two major cities.
Imagine if there was a high-speed train connecting Auckland and Hamilton - or other satellite cities. A short commute between the two cities would encourage people to spread out further, and reduce the housing, transport, and other infrastructure pressures that Auckland currently faces.
Many cities in China have - or are introducing - high speed rail networks to link them to neighbouring cities. Working with China can give access to not only capital and cost advantages, but also to innovation and experience in projects like these.