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The tour guide who became a banker

China veteran Johan Andrén of Handelsbanken moves back to Europe after a 35-year-long journey in Asia.

TEXT: Jan Hökerberg
23 OCTOBER, 2018

The expression “old China hand” was once developed for foreigners with an expert knowledge of the language, culture and people of China. One person that really fits this description is Johan Andrén, who recently left his job as general manager of Handelsbanken’s Hong Kong branch to move back to Europe. Few foreigners in Asia can beat Andrén’s record of having spent around 35 years in the region, most of the time in China.

“I first visited mainland China in 1985 when I was still studying,” says Andrén. “I spent a month exploring the country by rail. My budget was 3,000 yuan which included train tickets, accommodation, food, entrance fees and so on. I managed to live on that but it was a bit hard core. For example, I couldn’t afford soft seater on the trains and had to use hard seater or hard sleeper cars. However, I really got a chance to see a lot of China,”

3,000 yuan

The budget Johan Andrén had when he was a student in 1985 and toured China by rail for a month. The amount included everything, from railway tickets and accommodation to food.

He was only three years old when he got his first glimpse of Asia. It was in 1964, and his family had moved from Västerås in Sweden to Tokyo, where his father worked for the Swedish trading house Gadelius. Five years later, the family moved back from the Japanese capital to the small town of Falkenberg on Sweden’s west coast.

When he had finished upper secondary school and military service in 1981, Andrén decided to visit his father who at that time worked in Taiwan.

“I saw it as an adventure to live abroad for a while and I started to study Mandarin,” says Andrén.

His stint in Taipei inspired him to take on Mandarin studies at Lund University when he was back in Sweden and he combined it with economics and took a Master’s in 1987. After graduation, Andrén sent job applications to a large number of companies that did business with China but without any luck, despite the fact that China had just opened up to foreign investment.

“I thought the companies would have a need for someone with my background but at that time there wasn’t that much interest in China among Swedish multinationals,” he says.

Instead, he started working freelance as a tour guide for Svensk-Kinesiska Resebyrån, a Swedish travel agency that specialises in organising tourist trips to China.

“You cannot underestimate the benefits of working as a tour guide. It means that you learn a lot about management and how to handle difficult situations. You are solely responsible for a group of 30 or more people and you must be able to answer a large number of questions from the travellers you serve. Therefore, I had to study a lot about China’s history, culture and politics. Besides, it gave me an excellent opportunity to travel all over China while practicing the Chinese language on a daily basis,” says Andrén.

He worked for the travel agency for six years and made around eight to 10 trips each year.Then, in 1994, he heard that the Swedish bank Handelsbanken was looking for a chief representative in Taipei. He applied and got the job.

One year earlier, he had married Marianne whom he met when she was working at the travel agency. They had a son, Henrik, who is 24 today and works at Volvo Cars in Gothenburg, and they adopted Elin, who is 20 today and works at the Gothia Towers hotel, also in Gothenburg.

Johan Andrén (left) with Handelsbanken’s former CEO Pär Boman when the bank celebrated 30 years in China in 2012 at The Roosevelt on The Bund in Shanghai.

After a couple of years in Taipei, Andrén moved to Beijing in 1997 in a similar position. Handelsbanken had established a representative office in Beijing in 1982, making it the first Nordic bank in China.

“The bank’s policy was that its chief representative in China’s capital should speak Chinese. It was more important than having long experience from banking. My predecessors were all experienced China veterans, such as Lars Ellström, Ola Svensson, Frédéric Cho and Mats Harborn,” says Andrén.

His knowledge in the Chinese language has given him many advantages. “I know how to read and write Chinese but over the past two decades I have mainly focused on speaking. It gives the bank credibility, for example in business discussions or when we visit regulators and the central bank. It’s also a good feeling to know that I can totally manage on my own, I never need any written notes or similar prompts,” he says.

When he looks back and compares the China he experienced in the 1980s and 1990s, when the city streets swarmed with cyclists and had almost no cars, with China today, he says that Chinese people at that time were very innocent, friendly and humble. “Today, they are still very friendly, but more cocky because of what China has achieved over the years.”

He remembers the boom years in the early 2000s with incredible GDP growth rates of 15 per cent per year. “In retrospect, they were amazing years. We read in the newspapers that some 70 per cent of all available construction cranes in the world were supposed to be located in Shanghai and it might have been true – there was construction everywhere,” he says.

The bank’s policy was that its chief representative in China’s capital should speak Chinese. It was more important than having long experience in banking.”

In 2004, when Andrén had been back in Sweden for a year, working at the bank’s Lund branch, he was asked to return to China and handle the opening of Handelsbanken’s branch in Shanghai – which was the first of its kind for a Nordic bank in China.

“This was definitely a milestone for the bank,” Andrén says. “It took one year to get the license and then, in 2009, we got our license to do business in RMB – the first Nordic bank to do so – which was another milestone.”

After nine years in Shanghai, Andrén moved to Hong Kong in 2013 as branch general manager.

He left Hong Kong in September for Frankfurt, where he will be working in a team responsible for Handelsbanken’s German customer base and live with his wife in the spa town of Bad Homburg close to Frankfurt. “I studied German in school and at university, but I think that I need to freshen it up a bit,” he says.

He will miss the dynamics and the everything-is-possible mentality in Asia but he also feels that it’s important to be closer to the children: “It’s been a fantastic journey in Asia but now it’s time for someone else to take over.”.

Johan Andrén about ...

… Handelsbanken’s goal: “We live in a changing world but customer satisfaction is always our main challenge as well as one of our main means of reaching our goal. We benchmark ourselves against other listed banks in our home markets and our goal is to have better return on equity than our peers, and an important means to reach this goal is to always have the most satisfied customers.”

… China’s banking regulations: “China’s regulations continuously change. It takes a lot of energy and you always have to live with it.”

… financial technology: “Fintech apps offer everything from savings products to payment solutions. It also puts pressure on banks to change themselves and they might not necessarily be competitors.”