'People here speak from the heart, the Chinese appreciate that'
As NI companies seek export sales in China this week, Yvette Shapiro talks to Tim Losty, director of the Northern Ireland Bureau – known in Stormont circles as 'our man in Beijing'
If there’s a potentially difficult, sensitive and politically challenging job to be done, Tim Losty seems to be the man to do it, as far as the First and Deputy First Ministers are concerned. The north Belfast man has a track record of taking on daunting tasks, at home and abroad.
In the aftermath of Holy Cross, Tim spearheaded efforts to repair community relations. He led the Crumlin Road Gaol redevelopment and worked on the controversial and ill-fated Maze Long Kesh project.
The diplomatic skills that helped him to navigate those choppy waters have taken him in recent years to Capitol Hill and now to the capital of the world’s fastest growing economy.
“You could say that I like a challenge, or that others like to give me a challenge, whether I’m looking for it or not,” joked Tim, on a flying visit home.
Back in the Eighties and early Nineties, in the darkest days of the Troubles and against a backdrop of widespread unemployment and economic gloom, Tim worked in some of Belfast’s most deprived communities, helping to build a culture of entrepreneurship from the ground up.
After studying political science at Queen’s, followed by marketing and business organisation at Ulster University, Tim joined the Local Enterprise Development Unit (Ledu) and was posted to the Special Action Team. “We were targeting areas of great disadvantage in the city, bringing businesses in and getting local people into self-employment,” said Tim.
“You have to remember how bad things were at that time. We were trying to bring hope, job creation and economic development to areas like Poleglass and the Glen Road. Mistakes were made but we were all in new territory.”
During his time with Ledu, Tim took part in trade missions to the United States and met prospective American investors on their visits to Belfast. His diplomatic skills, straightforward approach and ability to “talk up” Northern Ireland at a time when its merits were overshadowed by its difficulties made him the ideal candidate to head up the Northern Ireland Bureau in Washington in 2003.
“During the Troubles, our message to the Americans had been ‘give us some money and we’ll stop killing each other’,” said Tim. “I felt strongly that the new message should be about showing Americans what they could get in return for their investment in Northern Ireland. ”
Tim chose the bureau’s famous and well-attended St Patrick’s Day breakfast in 2004 to launch his ambitious new strategy.
“Back then, following the collapse of the Executive, if you just focused on the politics it looked as if Northern Ireland was failing.
“But getting people to focus on our businesses, culture, science, technology and universities showed that we were not dysfunctional and there were real opportunities.”
The strategy proved successful and as well as helping to build educational and research links, Tim pushed hard on economic development.
“I was able to get access to key political figures and decision makers. I got doors opened.
“Some US companies were initially reluctant because they saw Northern Ireland as a basket case, but we were saying to them ‘work with us because you will gain from it, we’re not just a charity case’, and they listened.”
After four years in Washington, Tim was back on his home turf of north Belfast, running the Community Action Unit.
“We had to establish personal credibility with the community groups and get them to buy into capacity building and cross community work,” said Tim.
“The redevelopment of the legacy sites, like Girdwood Barracks and Crumlin Road Gaol, were central to driving economic change in north Belfast. I’m particularly proud of the gaol. It’s a major asset for the community, generating jobs, bringing visitors and money into the area and stimulating further regeneration.”
Tim’s China odyssey began in 2012 when he was asked by the Executive to organise the visit to Northern Ireland of Chinese Vice-Premier Madame Liu Yandong.
“There was immense pressure but it was hugely successful and she had a great rapport with the First and Deputy First Ministers. On a recent visit to the UK, she remarked that her trip to Belfast had been one of her favourites,” he said.
This summer, the Chinese government opened a new consulate in Belfast. And at the invitation of Madame Liu, the Executive is reciprocating with an office in Beijing, headed by Tim, who’s been in the Chinese capital for just over a year, laying the groundwork. His wife, Lisa, has recently joined him there. “There are huge opportunities in China but it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale and by the challenges.
“Companies are put off by the fact that they don’t know enough about China, the complicated language and the hugely different culture.
“And the Chinese have really tightened up their business regulations, so exporters can become frustrated at the massive bureaucracy that surrounds getting products into market.
“Recently, there’s been a huge amount of work done to get Northern Ireland meat products into the Chinese market, and following visits from the Agriculture Minister, Michelle O’Neill, that’s getting closer.
“It’s all about personal relationships. Northern Ireland people tend to speak from the heart, and the Chinese really appreciate that. With the Chinese, there has to be a personal relationship before there is a business relationship. You have to take it at their pace, and that can be quite slow. But never leave a meeting without talking business, otherwise they will think you’re not serious.”
As well as forging links for Northern Ireland companies and universities in Beijing and Shanghai, Tim is also treading new ground in China.
“The Chinese government wants to see economic transformation in second tier cities and we’re active in Shenyang, in Liaoning Province. Bombardier, Queen’s and Ulster University are all there and the opportunities are staggering. It’s a region of 44m people with an emphasis on heavy engineering and minerals.
“The whole world is in Shanghai and Beijing, looking for business. I think a lot of our companies could find somewhere like Shenyang a more accessible and rewarding way to enter the Chinese market.”
So much for the west-east traffic, what about east-west? Tim is convinced that the Chinese will be attracted by investment opportunities in Northern Ireland.
“The Chinese have invested everywhere else in the UK, and the recent visit to Britain of President Xi has driven that forward again. In the past six months, we’ve had two senior Chinese government ministers visiting Northern Ireland. We have obvious opportunities for infrastructure investment, like Titanic Quarter and Ebrington Barracks.”
Tim isn’t too concerned that the apparent slowdown in the Chinese economy will diminish opportunities for exporters.
“The Chinese government signalled some time ago that there would be a slowdown, some people refer it to as the ‘new normal’.
“The new target is 7% growth, which we would still be envious of. Most economists I’ve talked to believe the Chinese government will manage it well and has plenty of money in reserve.”
This time it's personal ...
Q. What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given?
A. It’s “if you talk too much you are not listening and learning”.
Q. What advice would you pass on to someone starting out in public service?
A. The public sector can provide many opportunities for jobs and careers, but to get the most out of it, I think you have to want to make a difference.
Q. What was your best decision? What was your worst?
A. The best decision was probably undertaking further training and post graduate courses as it provided more opportunities for career moves and increased my skills and confidence. My worst? Quite a few, from taking on too much work when I should have said no to “that looks okay, I think I will eat it”.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. Something in sports and fitness.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. My last holiday was to Croatia, the next will be somewhere in China that is off the regular tourist trail.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. Mainly fitness, gym, mountain biking, swimming. Also motorcycling.
Q. What is your favourite band or piece of music, and why?
A. Everything from AC/DC to Johnny Cash and a bit of classical music. I don’t have any particular favourites but some fit the mood or the occasion.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team? And have you ever played any sports?
A. I’ve tried quite a few sports and while I don’t think there were any that I was very good at, I enjoyed taking part. I swam and played water polo at school and club level, I enjoy working with amateur boxing and I watch soccer, but have gone off it a bit when I see players dive and fake injuries. I like to watch rugby, where there is still a lot of sportsmanship.