business

A Shanghai Pep Rally for CEOs

At the so-called APEC CEO Summit, a global army of networking executives gathered to seek reassurrance in uncertain times

By Alysha Webb

This year's annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) powwow featured quite a sideshow. Three days before national leaders gathered for the main event, more than 500 execs from companies doing business in the greater China region gathered in a cavernous conference hall at Shanghai's Grand Hyatt Hotel.

The APEC CEO Summit, as it was dubbed, combined morale boosting with networking -- and gave China a chance to show off its economic achievements (see BW Online, 10/22/01, "At APEC, Triumphs for China -- and Especially America"). Declaring his confidence that the summit would help APEC economies face a world economic slowdown and the aftershocks of the September 11 attacks, China's Vice-Premier Qian Qichen launched the summit, declaring it "a platform for communication and cooperation."

It proved to be quite a show. "I really didn't have any second thoughts" about flying over from the U.S., said Eric Ryan, founder of California-based E.C. Ryan International, which helps American companies market and distribute in China. "I support the cause of trying to promote lower trade barriers. It's in American companies' interest to trade with China." It's a busy time for Ryan, who represents a number of midsize companies making airport-security equipment. Says Ryan: "All of our manufacturers are just going crazy."

PIPELINE PLANS.

  Networking was on the minds of many execs. "China and Russia are neighbors, so the chances for cooperation are big," said Sergei A. Zhvachkin, president of natural-gas producer Vostokgazprom. His company is negotiating to participate in China's plan to build a pipeline to bring natural gas from distant western oil fields to energy-hungry coastal cities like Shanghai. Zhvachkin was part of a large group of Russian executives and officials, ranging from the first deputy minister of the Russian Federation for Atomic Energy to the vice-president of telecom company Rostelecom.

Miao Wei, president of Dongfeng Motor, one of China's largest auto manufacturers, was also looking to do some networking. Although his company already manufacturers passenger cars in a joint venture with France's Citroën, Miao worries that China's World Trade Organization membership could result in his company being left behind technologically. Dongfeng is hunting for another foreign joint venture partner, he hinted.

The opening session, devoted to China, was also a chance for the host country to do a little bragging, as one of the only economies still showing strong growth. But when Zeng Peiyan, chairman of China's State Development Planning Commission, launched into a mind-numbing speech on China's speedy economic development over the past two decades, executives slowly drifted out into the hallway, where those not pounced upon by voracious reporters chatted among themselves.

MEMORIES.

  Executives of U.S.-based companies walked down the hall to a smaller room to hear Secretary of State Colin Powell reminisce about his first visit to China in 1973 as a lieutenant-colonel. Powell went on to praise the "enlightened political leadership and economic policies" that have brought China's economy so far since then.

Like Qian, Powell called on the business community to be a bright spot on the grim horizon. "It's important to keep investing and opening new trade avenues," to restore the world's confidence after "911," Powell said, using the short-hand name the Chinese have adopted for the events of September 11.

For two days, summit attendees had plenty of chances to expand their horizons, with sessions featuring topics such as "Corporate Responsibility in the Global Economy" and "Mexico's Growing Linkage with the Asia Pacific." In the end, though, maybe it wasn't the content of the speeches or the networking that seemed to matter the most at this year's summit.

For executives like Jim Brennan, regional vice-president for United Airlines, which has cut flight schedules globally by 20% and laid off 20,000 employees, it was nice just being in a crowd of engaged and busy peers. Maybe the moral support was the most important thing.

Webb is covering the APEC summit for BusinessWeek from Shanghai

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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