Atlanta and Amsterdam have a lot in common.
As regional hubs, they both rely heavily on strong airports, as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed learned when he visited Amsterdam in 2010 for a global air-cargo conference that will land in the Georgia capital in October.
They’re also business-friendly cities, with relatively low real-estate costs and solid clusters of service providers that tend to draw major corporate headquarters.
And although they may not be competing directly, they’re both attempting to woo investment from other countries, including China.
Mr. Reed recently returned from his first trip to the world’s second largest economy, where he partnered with Invest Atlanta and the Metro Atlanta Chamber to lead more than 20 companies to four cities. The group met with scores of businesses and signed cooperation agreements with the cities of Nanjing, Hangzhou and Shenzhen.
Mr. Reed pledged in 2010 to launch an international department at the city that would be charged with managing these relationships, among other duties. The department has yet to be launched. It’s unclear whether it would be under the purview of Invest Atlanta, the city’s recently rebranded economic development authority. The mayor, who will recount his China experiences at the upcoming Global Connect event May 3, was traveling and could not be reached for comment.
It has taken some time and effort, but Amsterdam has begun to reap the benefits of targeted efforts to attract overseas companies. It started when four metro regions including the City of Amsterdam banded together a few years ago to create Amsterdam in Business, the city’s agency for attracting foreign investors.
With 800 companies, the U.S. is by far the No. 1 investor in Amsterdam. Japan ranks second with a cluster of more than 500 firms. In the 1990s, Korean and Taiwanese companies came calling, but it has been emerging markets – China, India and more recently Turkey, Brazil and Russia – that have been on the city’s radar of late.
Based on its target markets, Amsterdam in Business sets up country desks (in Amsterdam) staffed by specialists who can speak the languages fluently.
These economic development professionals are charged with attracting new investors and maintaining ties with existing ones, often leading to job-creating expansions, said Hilde van der Meer, managing director of Amsterdam in Business.
Current desks include China, India, Japan, South Korea, U.S. and other countries.
Chinese investors appreciate a personal touch, which has prompted Amsterdam to create special soccer tournaments and Chinese New Year celebrations to welcome the local community, Ms. van der Meer told GlobalAtlanta in a telephone interview.
“That’s the way of doing business in China, keeping very close networks,” she said. “If there’s a complaint about certain issues, we’re going to solve it, so we go very far with certain investors in assisting them, and that pays back.”
At your service
Most of the businesspeople who accompanied Mr. Reed on his recent mission represented service providers including accountants, lawyers, bankers and architects. (Full list of companies here.)
As a European hub for such firms, Amsterdam has used their contacts in China to make inroads.
Also, like Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal on his November mission, Amsterdam has also made it a point to reach out to satisfied Chinese investors in the area.
When Industrial Commercial Bank of China set up a branch in Amsterdam, economic developers partnered with the bank to conduct investment seminars in Beijing. With 2 million corporate clients, the potential exposure with ICBC was huge.
“That’s a win-win because these banks, they want new customers as well. This is an approach we’re trying to enlarge constantly,” Ms. van der Meer said. “Teaming up with those specialists is really a good way to get results, and we came back from China with two expansions from Chinese companies already here and at least two new companies directly, and there’s still a lot in the pipeline.”
Before heading to China, Mr. Reed hosted Xu Erwen, the Chinese consul general from Houston, at the Woodruff Arts Center for a cultural performance by a Nanjing dance troupe.
In his remarks, Mr. Reed said he was pleased to welcome the group to Atlanta, noting that their efforts would boost friendship between the cities.
Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan often includes similar cultural elements when he travels to China, most recently last September. Though it’s separate, culture builds rapport that opens doors for new business relationships, Ms. van der Meer said.
Both national capitals, Amsterdam and Beijing are also sister cities. Cultural exchanges have included loans of famous impressionist works from Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh and a recent Amsterdam Symphony Orchestra concert in Beijing.
Atlanta has no Chinese sister city. Though the Atlanta Sister Cities Commission picked Ningbo in 2007, the City Council never voted on the recommendation.
What do they want from us?
Whether in Europe or the U.S., Ms. van der Meer feels the simplest factor is often overlooked in recruiting foreign investors: consideration for others.
“I think too many people think in their own perspective instead of looking at what someone else wants from them,” she said. “I can say this better in Dutch, but it’s bringing the outside in instead of bringing the inside out.”
The Netherlands, a small trading nation of 16 million people that has always exerted an out-size influence on global commerce, has a leg up in this regard.
“We’re trading people. It’s a small country. We’re under water; we’re dependent on the rest of the world. It’s in the genes,” she said.
This consideration for others has extended to the way the city welcomes foreign residents.
Funded by an annual budget of about a million euros, Amsterdam’s Expatcenter is charged with welcoming foreigners and making it easier for them to get established in the city.
Instead of having to run all over town to get multiple forms in what may be an unfamiliar language, the prospective expat simply fills out one application to get all the permits he or she needs, and the process can begin before the individual even arrives.
Having this “one-stop shop” has led to marked improvements in how foreigners rate their experience settling in the city, Ms. van der Meer said.