Secrets to success in business – an interview with Max Johnson, brother of Boris Johnson

November 17, 2019

Antoni Radziwiłł, You can speak fluently in multiple languages including Mandarin, but let’s start from the “flavor of Poland”. Why did you decide to study Russian with Polish as your major when you attended the University of Oxford?

Max Johnson: In the second year of my B.A. at the University of Oxford I decided to choose a Polish language and literature course. I believed it was perfect timing because in May 2004 Poland joined the EU. Choosing the Polish courses represented a strategic decision and chance for further development, especially in UK where many people were not pursuing this same path. Of course, there were many other reasons, and this was just one of them. Since I was a teenager I was always thinking outside of the box and tended to pursue those opportunities which would provide me with an advantage in competitive marketplaces.

Did you ever have a chance to study the Polish language in Poland?

Actually, yes. I did. In 2005, during my studies in Oxford, I received a scholarship and for some time I was studying the Polish language in Krakow, at the Jagiellonian University. During my stay I was able to visit many places including the city of Zakopane. I finished my studies with honours in 2007 and believe it was then, and still remains, a great advantage to be able to speak Polish language fluently. It’s also important to understand Polish history, culture, and be aware of the possible business opportunities.

Let’s move from Poland to China. Could you tell me about your “Chinese story”? When did it begin?

Ever since I can remember I have been interested in Asia. My interest compelled me to visit a variety of Asian countries and eventually I found my way to China. The first place which I visited in China as a tourist was Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province around 2005 or 2006. Since that first visit, collectively I must have spent about 13 years in Asian countries.

At what point did you begin to think about doing your M.B.A in Beijing?

First of all, I always wanted to do a postgraduate degree related to business. As for an MBA, well, I wanted to improve my Mandarin, so I was searching to find adequate program. I checked different opportunities for international students in top universities in Beijing and Shanghai; finally, it happened that I choose to do my MBA at Tsinghua University. That was a year before the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, and I was probably the first British student doing an MBA there. Somebody might say that I was too young for it back then, but I think that at 22 years old I had already pretty rich work experiences – such as intern in Lazard or setting up my own trading business in Moscow – so I didn’t have any hesitation to enroll in the MBA program.

Your M.B.A was a joint program?

Yes, and that was also one of the reasons it caught my attention as well as the module’s structure. Tsinghua-MIT Global MBA was a 2-years program. I could learn Mandarin language and I could also take part in a four months exchange study in New York University, which was really great. Beside that I was given a Certificate of Management by MIT University.

As I mentioned, I did some research before choosing an MBA at Tsinghua University. I looked at BiMBA in Peking University and few other options. I also considered doing my MBA in Shanghai, but I was eager to practice my Mandarin rather than Shanghainese. I know that many people speak Mandarin in Shanghai, but I preferred to have a complete Mandarin speaking environment around me, and I believe Beijing offered me the best place for that. Would you recommend doing an M.B.A in China? Well, it depends of course. It depends on person and his or her career plan. If somebody doesn’t have any interest in Asia or China, I think there is no point of doing an MBA there. As we know, there are many different programs around the world, so I would suggest into a program which is most suited to your interests. For person who wants to connect his or her future with Asian or Chinese markets, like myself, I would absolutely recommend considering an MBA in China.

Completing an M.B.A assisted you in your current business?

Indeed, that definitely helped me with creating and enhancing my current business.

Let’s talk about it then. You own a company, is that right?

That’s correct. I am a founder of MJ Capital. We are work on consulting, strategic advisory and investment cross-border projects. Based on my business experience in Real Estate, M&A Group of Goldman Sachs in HK or as a Vice Chair of a British Chamber of Commerce in China and practical knowledge from an MBA, I can provide high level professional support.

I guess you are deeply involved in China-UK business relations, but do you have some other regions in your business interests?

We are quite often working on advisory projects across New York, London, and Asian countries, especially with focus on China. But we do have some projects related to other countries. We are also open for business opportunities in Eastern Europe; one of the examples being Poland. Completely independent, we connect capital seekers with capital providers and our business profile is linked to real estate projects, technology, education, media, etc.

Any Polish – Chinese business story to share?

Not personally, but I was following the dispute between a Polish and a Chinese company (i.e., China Overseas Engineering Group; COVEC) over construction of a highway in Poland in 2011. It was actually a big case at the time.

That’s true, and this longstanding dispute has been settled in 2017…

One more thing to add regarding Chinese and Polish cooperation is that I noticed in the last few years we are witnessing broadening cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European countries and vice versa. We are also welcoming Polish entrepreneurs who are planning to enter the market in Hong Kong and mainland China mainland or are simply searching for a Chinese investor.

Could you tell me something about your recent business projects going on inside MJ Capital?

Recently, we have been involved in a large project in the publishing industry. We also have projects related to manufacturing in the toy and bicycle industries. It is good to highlight that doing business in China is not easy, but until now everything is going smoothly so we can say our experience has been positive.

Your company is based in Hong Kong. Are there some institutions or initiatives which could support Polish tech. start-ups?

There are many accelerators and incubators in Hong Kong which are available for startups. That is a really good place as a gateway for the Greater Bay Area. Polish entrepreneurs could follow StartmeupHK or Invest Hong Kong which assists overseas companies. I have to say that, the latter organisation helped me a lot.

And what about financial support?

Sure, government funds are available for supporting innovative start-ups.

You are living in China for many years. As you watch these rapid changes in China please share and highlight some things which you would emphasise the most.

China is investing a huge amount of money in R&D so the speed of changes is pretty amazing. Through all those years, personally I would highlight the penetration of smartphones and the way Chinese are becoming world’s first cashless society. The scale of mobile payments is enormous here and I have to say, it’s really convenient. Besides that, there are of course many things to share with you but I would like to add the increasing number of electric scooters in China. Unfortunately, riding an electric scooter on the road is strictly forbidden in the UK. It should be also pointed out that soon, there would another catchy topic regarding rapid changes in China and that is 5G technology.

The Chinese market has many opportunities for foreign entrepreneurs, but it’s not that easy to grasp them in practice. What are the challenges facing anyone who is just starting a business in China?

Indeed, there are many challenges. China has grown into a very competitive market for international and domestic businesses alike. Domestic business has become more advanced here, so that’s why newcomers must find ways to compete with the big Chinese players as well. There is also another challenge in the form of Chinese customers. They are now much more educated which result in demand of higher quality of products or services. They are much pickier and have great impact on the pricing. So, I would say that foreign brands with low quality products have little chance in China. It is also challenging for entrepreneurs to find the way how to keep them as a loyal customer. In addition, you might say that personal relations are also challenging in China. Many businesses depending on so-called guanxi (i.e., personal and business relationships). That is an important cultural issue to understand for the newcomers.

Finally, any general tips for Polish technology businesses in the Middle Kingdom?

For the last 20-30 years China had close business cooperation with the USA and Western Europe. Now, as I previously mentioned, China is spreading influence in Eastern Europe and into some post-soviet countries and Polish entrepreneurs definitely should use this chance to develop closer business relations with China. As you know, the Chinese market has a great opportunity and I think improving some areas of your trading would be a good idea. It’s good to remember that in China you can still produce cheap products, which is an opportunity for some basic trading. Another suggestion would be to improve relations with the local Chinese community in Poland. That friendship could result in long-term business cooperation. It is also helpful to read the newsletter from the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Beijing. I am glad that my name is on the list, so I am receiving very useful information related to Poland-China issues all the time.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

My pleasure.

*Max Johnson graduated with honours in Russian with Polish from University of Oxford and he was the first student from the UK to finish an M.B.A program at Tsinghua University. He is a founder of MJ Capital based in HK. Before that he was working as the Business Development Manager for the British metals trader Wogen Resources. He then spent 4 years at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong as an Investment Banker working on a wide range of transactions across many industries. As Vice Chair of the British Chamber of Commerce in China he was engaged in numerous business projects. Some other interesting facts from his life: he is a polyglot, he participated in the Pyongyang Marathon in North Korea, and he holds a black belt in Taekwondo. Follow him on Twitter.

Edit: Michael Hutchens/NB

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