Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson Seeks Opportunities on Trade Mission to China

Caifu Magazine | by Catherine Skrzypinski

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Robertson led a trade delegation to China in September 2017 to strengthen economic ties between Vancouver, Beijing and Shanghai, focusing on technology and clean energy. The Vancouver Economic Commission (VEC) organized the Vancouver Business Mission to China 2017, bringing with them Canada-based experts on bioenergy, foreign trade, investment and e-commerce.

“The goals of this mission is to create more business opportunities for Vancouver companies looking to market products in the Chinese market, and to attract investment from companies in China to Vancouver,” Robertson told CAIFU in China Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017. “We have a strong track record of delivering results on the ground because we’ve had a clear focus on our missions.”

Robertson said this was his fourth successful mission to China, as the presence of a mayor at trade delegations is important in opening doors for business with the Chinese.

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The Rise of E-Commerce

VEC signed a memorandum of understanding during the trip with International Ltd., a Beijing-based e-commerce giant. Corporate Vice President Jerome Ma emphasized to Vancouver business leaders in July 2017 that the e-commerce giant is committed to ethical business.

“Canada’s high-quality products, fresh food and travel experiences are highly sought after by China’s large and growing middle-class population who are looking online for the best products and experiences around the world,” Ma said in an August 2017 statement. “Modern China has the potential to be a big opportunity for Canadian businesses of all sizes.”

Robertson told CAIFU it was encouraging to hear’s interest in accessing more Canadian products because of their high quality, and that they intend to put more Canadian products into Chinese markets.

“E-commerce is an enormous opportunity for Canadian companies to market their products into the gigantic Chinese market, particularly for small- to medium-size enterprises, who might not otherwise have a chance to access a platform of this scale,” Robertson said. “For Canadian companies, this represents a huge chance to grow their businesses in one of the world’s biggest markets, and do it in a way that’s efficient. It’s not possible without these enormous e-commerce platforms. The sophistication now with e-commerce and connecting consumers – especially China’s growing middle class – to Canadian companies releasing products and services is quite remarkable.”

The Chinese online retail market is on track to double its sales by 2020, as a combination of improved logistics and inventories located closer to consumers should allow brick-and-mortar retailers like groceries and health care products to move online, reported Goldman Sachs in July 2017.
“This bodes well for companies in Vancouver if China focuses on high-quality production,” Robertson continued. “Our biggest challenge is often accessing new markets efficiently. E-commerce platforms like and Alibaba are a direct link to a massive consumer base. This could create a big opportunity for Canada and our economy.”

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Vancouver Transforms into a Global Tech Hub

Vancouver’s economy has transformed dramatically in a generation – from a resource-based city to now a 90 percent service-based economy, Robertson explained.

Currently, Vancouver is in the Top 20 cities globally in tech and innovation, according to research firm 2thinknow. “I’m hopeful we see more investment into Vancouver’s startup ecosystem, as tech companies are enjoying unprecedented success here now,” Robertson said.

As a small market, Vancouver requires investment from outside to grow the city’s companies, he noted. Robertson should know – before entering politics, Robertson was an entrepreneur in the agricultural space. He ran an organic farm in Fort Langley in the Fraser Valley. He also founded Happy Planet Foods in 1994, where he and his longtime friend Randal Ius picked organic produce grown on the Robertson family farm. They concocted juices and smoothies to give urbanities a taste of the country.

“When I was building my business, I had to travel throughout North America raising capital to grow my company and create more jobs,” he revealed to CAIFU. “It’s now a global market for that type of investment.”

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As many of Vancouver’s businesses continue to access distant markets, like the rest of Canada, the United States and Europe, Robertson’s gaze lingers toward Asia and China. “I’d love to see more capital flowing from Chinese investors to help boost our startups and growing companies,” he continued. “In China, [Vancouver’s] reputation is stellar, and that should be a helpful asset in marketing opportunities.”

Vancouver is seeing unparalleled success and growth in the innovation economy, Robertson explained. “We have three unicorns in tech [Hootsuite, Avigilon and Slack] right now that are over $1 billion CAD in valuation, and there’s huge growth in tech companies establishing offices in Vancouver.” That list includes Amazon, Electronic Arts, Microsoft and SAP.

Companies in Vancouver are able to attract talent and employees from around the world because British Columbia is a great place to live, he added. “We have great momentum in tech. Our position as a livable, smart, green city is a valuable boost for attracting talent and investment, and strengthening the branding of our companies.”

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Vancouver’s 2020 Vision: Greenest City

Robertson was first elected mayor of Vancouver in November 2008, and was re-elected for a third term in November 2014. Under Robertson’s leadership for nearly a decade, Vancouver has become Canada’s fastest growing, greenest and most resilient economy. “We’re over 3.5 percent gross domestic product (GDP) growth for the past five years now, leading Canadian and almost all American cities,” he added.

Vancouver has been increasingly reliant in a wide array of industries steeped in innovation in recent years, Robertson told CAIFU. “Fortunately, we are continuing our phenomenal growth and success, including clean technology and creative industries like animation, digital media and visual effects,” he added. “We’ve seen remarkable success and growth in emerging industries, and I expect that to continue.”

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Robertson is one of the architects aiming to transform Vancouver into the “greenest city in the world” by 2020 as an environmental leader in energy efficiency, waste reduction and a lighter carbon footprint.

“In this day and age, [Vancouver] will never compete on volume or proximity to large markets,” he continued. “We must differentiate ourselves with our businesses having high-quality products, the most ethical values, leading-edge technologies, sustainable business models and the smartest employees – that’s where we can continue to gain ground and create opportunity. Then we can help change the world for the better.”

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Family Ties to China

Robertson has a personal connection to China. He is a distant relative of Dr. Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor beloved in China for his work behind the battle lines to save wounded Chinese soldiers during the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1938-1939. The mayor’s full name is Gregor Angus Bethune Robertson, after his paternal grandmother’s first cousin.

“I am humbled and proud of my family’s connection to China,” he told CAIFU. “But many people forget [Dr. Bethune] was a biotech pioneer. He developed a new technology for mobile blood transfusions that was a breakthrough in its time, and he saved countless lives in times of war.”

While Dr. Bethune’s story is important in China as an expression of selflessness and how he helped humanity, Robertson noted people should learn more about the innovation and technology aspects of Dr. Bethune’s story. “It’s an additional boost to [Canada’s] history, and it speaks to the opportunity we still have today for Canadian entrepreneurs and businesses to … make the world a better place with products and services.”

“[Dr. Bethune] has connected Canada and China on a human level,” he concluded. “We need to use those important stories from the past to create a brighter future.”