Government-sponsored new business migrants
Asian Australians with entrepreneurial drive and the willingness to work long hours have become the new wave of successful small business owners in the nation’s shopping strips and malls.
They are the new face of shop-front entrepreneurship: Asian Australians are a growing business band, and they’re not just running noodle shops and restaurants.
Instead, they are buying milk bars, takeaways, newsagencies and Lotto outlets. They are running post offices, dry-cleaners, fruit and vegie shops, mini-marts. They are behind the counter in bakeries, video stores, fish and chip shops, cafes and coffee lounges. They own and operate: they run franchises.
Their burgeoning presence signals an evolutionary shift as Asian Australians – many of whom came to Australia as skilled workers, refugees or through family reunion programs over the past 20 years – move out of factories and low-paid work to take on a variety of businesses, some previously the bread and butter of postwar European migrants and their families.
”Who says the Greeks have to run fish and chip shops?” laughs a Chinese-born proprietor of a takeaway store in North Ringwood. ”The English did it first, then the Greeks. It’s not as if it is a highly skilled job. I could teach you those skills in a day.”
Many of the new breed of proprietors are from mainland China: some are beneficiaries of former prime minister Bob Hawke’s pledge to Chinese students during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. For many of the 40,000, Hawke’s amnesty led to citizenship.
But increasingly, those who have worked their way up from the factory floor are being joined by a new generation of Chinese migrants who are using the proceeds of their nation’s emerging free market economy to buy businesses across Australia.
Some qualify easily because of their substantial offshore assets; others invest smaller amounts through the sponsored business migration program, which entices foreign business people with the promise of permanent residency.
In 2007-08, more than 1800 people came to Victoria under the program, the vast majority from China, with import-export or retail and hospitality businesses their favoured enterprise.
Irrespective of their pathway, the business owners share common characteristics.
”They’re prepared to work their businesses really hard,” says leading business broker Ian Wollermann. ”They see Australia as a wonderful country of opportunity. They can buy a business, they can run it and they can make money out of it, and they can work as hard as they like.”
Says Peter Cowley, the chief executive of the Victorian Association for Newsagents: ”About eight or nine years ago, Asian Australians started buying into newsagencies. They are very hard-working, and very focused on customer service because they realise that service is important. They’re good for the industry.”
Cowley sold his own Balwyn newsagency six years ago to an Asian buyer who had worked as an engineer
in a factory in China. ”Now he has two and he’s bought the building as well.”
Shops in big retail centres as well as kerb-side strips provide an opportune first-entry point for migrants, many of whom graduate from basic ventures to more sophisticated and challenging businesses as they master English and local customs.
A string of six shops side-by-side on Warrandyte Road, North Ringwood, seemingly typifies the trend. Over the past several years, all have become the province of Asian Australians.
Wei, 54, ran a newsagency for four years before taking on the post office with his wife Rena; Huaping ”Peter” Tang, 56, bought the charcoal chicken shop, his second go at such a venture; 52-year-old Qing ”Charlie” Zhou with his wife Ji, 46, took over the newsagency with Chinese partners after a stint selling pizzas and a first-up failure running a cafe; while Frances Lu, 55, who learnt English from other migrants while sewing in a factory and from eavesdropping on coffee shop conversations, says of her six-days-a-week dry cleaning business: ”I don’t mind hard work. The more busy I am, the more happy I am.”
Chao Ying Wang, 50, and husband Kaicheng, have run the milk bar for the past three years selling staples of cigarettes, drinks and sweets, but admit it’s a struggle competing with the local supermarket.
All the shopkeepers agree that communication skills are an entree to success. ”Good English is good for business,” says Peter Tang, who arrived in Australia in 1988 and worked as a material cutter for Coogi clothing until its local operation closed earlier this decade.
Tang bought his Charcoal Chicken outlet two years ago and works seven days a week, after running a similar venture in Lalor for five years.
For Australia, read: opportunity, he says in as many words. His endeavour has brought rewards – his daughter, now 26, has degrees in law and commerce and works as a tax consultant for a large city firm, and he expects to be able to retire within three years.
Just as long-time Asian-Australian residents have traded up into better businesses, many of the government-sponsored new business migrants are similarly targeting shop-front ventures.
The national migration program, launched in 2004 as part of Australia’s general upgrading of skills, requires minimum assets of $250,000 for newcomers (in Victoria, $400,000). Migrants can enter on a four-year provisional visa during which time they must demonstrate their business acumen. Increased returns or the creation of local jobs are among the requisites for securing permanent residency.
The pathway might be different to that taken by the thousands of migrants who preceded them years earlier, but the entry point can often be the same.
”It’s sometimes the case that people choose more modest businesses to start with to demonstrate what they can do,” says Irene Tkalcevic, who manages skilled and business migration in the Department of Innovation, Industry and Regional Development. ”They all come with substantial business backgrounds, so it’s not as though they are completely new to business, but rather coming to terms with the business environment here. Once established, they look to move on to bigger and better things over the longer term.”
Ian Wollermann, of Wollermann and Associates, says Asian clients account for up to 60 per cent of his sales of newsagencies, lotto and post office branches.
”You’ve got to go through a rigorous process,” he says. ”A lot of the buyers we get buying those businesses as well as franchises are people who are on their second or third business and have picked up and improved their language skills.”
But other clients are coming directly from China, where Wollermann has established a Shanghai office as a conduit. Many end up running dual businesses, in China and Australia.
”They’ve got quite good businesses in China and they want a Western education for their children, which they really value, and the only way they can get here is under a business visa,” says Wollermann.
There are myriad opportunities, myriad arrangements. Some business migrants partner with local operators; some dispatch university-trained older children to run the business; sometimes a husband and wife will straddle two continents – he’ll run the China leg of the business and she the Australian operation while their children attend local schools.
Gone, too, it seems, are the days when new migrants contained themselves to particular geographies. This new wave of entrepreneurial spirit is taking Asian Australians – especially Chinese and some Indian entrepreneurs – across the city in search of prospects. And for the first time they are eyeing opportunity in the regions.
”Before, we couldn’t sell businesses in the country to people from Asia,” says Wollermann. ”But, ultimately, there’ll be people of Asian backgrounds operating businesses right through rural Victoria . . .
”They are wonderful clients. They run their businesses really well. They’ve got more and more of their family involved, brought family across with them and they’ve just continued to accumulate businesses. I take my hat off to them.”
The experience of the North Ringwood business owners tells the story of migrant evolution. Charlie Zhou, from Fujian province and an English student in Melbourne at the time of Tiananmen, took on factory jobs initially.
The learning curve was steep: Zhou would tape the dispatcher’s messages, replaying them over and over to identify the delivery address. Sometimes the vernacular stumped him. It took a while to crack the dispatcher’s ”code”: ”Bill Town” for Williamstown, and so forth.
A coffee shop in Epping brought him unstuck. But his work ethic drove him back into small business: next, he ran a pizza shop in Noble Park. Five years on, he sold up, taking on the newsagency with its busy Tattslotto outlet.
Near-neighbour Wei, a technician who worked for Ericsson for 15 years and who now runs the post office, says the next generation are better prepared for Australia’s business environment. ”When we came we didn’t fully know Australian culture but my sons, while they might look Asian, their thinking and all that they do is Australian,” he says during a fleeting break from behind the counter.
The transition from generation to generation also confers a sense of belonging. But for many of the original entrepreneurs, the wrench from homeland causes lingering pain.
Chao Ying’s milk bar hours are long – 7.30am to 9.30pm daily – and the constant presence of Hong Kong television beamed into the shop via satellite tests her emotions. Beijing’s Olympics made her proud, but programs more often than not make her long for family and home.
”I think I will miss China for another 10 years,” she says, before acknowledging that the couple’s sacrifice had been for the benefit of their sons. ”The time will pass.”
Where business migrants are investing*
HOSPITALITY (260) Restaurants, cafes.
MANUFACTURING (16) Electrical packaging, electroplating.
PRIMARY INDUSTRY (5) Dairy, vegetables.
RETAIL (672) Wide range including groceries, automotive, clothing, computer products, convenience stores, electrical appliance stores, food outlets, furniture, giftware, hardware, ice cream shops, jewellery.
SERVICE (232) Including advertising, auto repairs, consultancies, health clubs, tourism, IT services, laundry, logistics, media.
TRADE (579) Import and export businesses.
WHOLESALE (12) Automotive parts, bathroom products, food.
* SECTORS AND TYPES OF BUSINESSES IN WHICH MIGRANTS SPONSORED BY THE VICTORIAN GOVERNMENT PROPOSED ESTABLISHING THEIR BUSINESSES IN 2007-08.
SOURCE: VICTORIAN DEPT OF INNOVATION, INDUSTRY AND REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Simon Mann is an Age senior writer.