Face-to-Face is a new feature from newzealandinc.com where we sit down for a chat with young business leaders from around the globe. We’ll be running a special series of these from China where we talk to young New Zealanders doing big things on the ground here.
Today we’re talking to Darren Foo, a Singapore born New Zealander currently working for Diageo as a corporate lawyer in Shanghai. Darren grew up in New Zealand, attending Wellington College where he would go on to become Dux before heading up the road to Victoria University for his tertiary education. Post-graduation, after a four-year stint at Russell McVeagh in Auckland, Darren was brought to China in 2010 to work for Linklaters before being brought onboard by Diageo to work on their US $2billion acquisition of United Spirits – Darren’s short but storied time in China is drawing to a close for the time being as he plans to move on to his next port of call in Singapore.
NZ Inc: Starting off in Singapore and then coming to New Zealand, could you tell me about that move and how you found the experience?
I grew up in Singapore and spent the first ten years of my life there with my family before my parents decided to make the move over to New Zealand. At that time, it was a huge change for me coming from what is essentially quite a populated city to Wellington, which I thought was really very quiet.
Our time in New Zealand was fantastic. Growing up there, I still remember mum and dad taking us on rides, piling the family into a van and going on roadtrips. It’s something you’d never experience over in Singapore. Fantastic times and memories.
NZ Inc: And how did you come to end up here in China?
2010 wasn’t a particularly great time to look for work overseas after the GFC. Many firms in the UK weren’t hiring so I turned my focus to Asia. Part of me always knew I’d end up here because I speak Mandarin, I’m fluent in the language and so I applied for work with various firms around HK, Shanghai and Beijing.
I moved to Shanghai in 2010 starting work at Linklaters in a corporate role dealing with mergers and acquisitions, helping businesses buy other businesses.
I had the choice of Hong Kong, but in my eyes that was almost Asia lite. It’s very easy there. You can speak English and get around there whereas Shanghai is slightly more difficult, slightly more challenging and I wanted my experience overseas to be challenging and expose me fully to the Chinese culture.
NZ Inc: With Shanghai and China as a whole, did you get the experience you came for?
I think I have, I’ve been based up here for the past two years and it has given me insight into how the Chinese people think. In my time at Linklaters, I dealt with a number of clients and it was good having the face to face interactions and chatting with them and trying to understand their mindset and how they work. I think there’s certainly a lot to be said about being based here and getting to know the people here – it really is the best way to experience a culture.
NZ Inc: Do you think your ability to speak Chinese affected the experience you got here?
My Mandarin is good, it’s on a good level. I can speak on business terms. The issue is a lot of the people here, because of the way I look they assume I’ve been raised here in China. So I have Shanghainese people coming up to me and speaking Shanghainese (the local dialect) and I reply in Mandarin and they look at me blankly assuming that I belong here. So it’s almost a reverse.
An experience which I receall was over in Qingdao during the beer festival and I was there with a whole bunch of Kiwi friends. All of my mates got free drinks because of the way they looked – but because I look Chinese, they interacted with me like I’m a local, not a kiwi. And I did not get any free drinks!
NZ Inc: What would you say to New Zealanders looking at Shanghai as a future destination?
I think in Shanghai if we’re talking about the city alone, don’t be afraid of it. Learning the language, while a great tool for anyone thinking about coming to China whether to do business or experience the culture, is still not necessary to experience China. You can still get around here, experience what we have in Shanghai. It’s a beautiful city that’s been open to the outside world in the past. They used to call it the Paris of the East. Don’t let that fear let you stop yourself from coming over to China. Come over, experience it and see what it’s like.