For decades, Chinese construction companies have thrived far away from their home. In TT alone, Chinese firms have helped build landmark monuments like the National Academy for the Performing Arts (Napa) and its southern counterpart. And just last year, Government announced that ten companies are expected to invest in the Phoenix Park Industrial Estate, in Point Lisas.
The key behind this success, according to the regional manager of one such company, comes from strong Chinese work ethic, understanding the local market and a desire to train and improve the proficiency of local workers.
Business Day spoke with Yan Meng, managing director of the China Railway Construction (Caribbean) Company's (CRCC) TT subsidiary, at his Queen’s Park East office recently to find out more about his company’s roots in TT, opportunities for growth and expectations for the future.
The CRCC came to TT in 2007 after being contracted to build the Scarborough General Hospital in Signal Hill, Tobago for $477 million.
Despite being a fairly recent arrival, the CRCC has been involved in several high-profile infrastructure projects, including the Arima hospital, the Curepe interchange and the St James hospital.
While some critics have described China’s growing interest in the Caribbean as akin to “pseudo-imperialism,” Meng says Chinese business interests in the Caribbean are mutually beneficial to both the company and the local population.
“In all of our projects there is more than 50 per cent local labour, while Chinese workers make up management and technical positions. We’re not just here to deliver the project, we also have to transfer the technical knowledge and work attitude to the local people. At times the work attitude in Trinidad is different to ours. We try to find a balance between us and local workers,” Meng said.
This exchange of information is evident in the historic memorandum of understanding signing, last September, between the CRCC and the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), when four local engineers were invited to attend an internship programme at various CRCC projects in TT.
“At the Curepe interchange, my Chinese technicians are working together with the Trinidadian workers to do the reinforcement (of the structure).”
Meng, who visits CRCC’s projects each week to supervise the progress, said he was “thoroughly impressed” with the pace of works and said despite minor hiccups in productivity, he was pleased with the quality of work from local workers.
After a competitive bid round, CRCC was awarded the $221.7 million contract for the Curepe interchange. Meng said despite competitive bidding, part of his company’s success was its ability to deliver quality service at an affordable price, and credited this philosophy of performance over cost for part of his company’s international success.
“We serve all of our clients the same, whether government or private. One of the reasons we have survived as long as we have is our dedication to consistently giving good work. The same quality of work we would give to one company is the same we intend to deliver to another of a lower price.”
As the Chinese economy recorded its slowest rate of growth for 28 years last year, companies operating abroad may feel a crunch, but Meng says he is confident the CRCC is prepared for fluctuations in the market.
“Construction is not an easy industry, but that’s the key to thriving in tough times. Sometimes when the financing for a particular project is slowed down, we continue to finance it through our own resources.
“We are confident in the Trinidadian government to pay. But the procedure takes long sometimes. As responsible contractors we will not stop the work. We will, on a short-term basis, use our own money to maintain the work for the period we don’t get the money,” Yan said.
This work ethic has proved successful, as the parent company was ranked the third largest construction company in the world in 2017 by the Engineering News Record.
Meng’s Queen’s Park East office serves not only as the headquarters for all his company’s construction activities in the country, but for the Caribbean region. The reason for using TT as the base of operations, he says, was because of its relatively stable political system, fairly large economy and diverse population.
“I’m very impressed with the unity here in TT. There are different ethnicities – African, Indian, Chinese, Arab, European. All of the ethnicities operate as one, there is no discrimination. So I was very impressed. I feel very comfortable.”
With Guyana poised to become one of the largest oil-producing countries in the world in the next five years, Meng says there is also great interest in expanding there. On the collapse of the Guyanese government late last year, he says while the CRCC is interested in increasing operations before the oil boom starts, it needed to wait and see how the government develops before investing.
And while Chinese investment in TT has not slowed, Meng said the relationship between TT and China can go even further with greater trust from both sides.
“Both local and international contractors have to learn to work together, use the right suppliers, contractors to achieve (success). Understanding the market is a big part of our success, and we ensure that when we do business, everyone wins.”