First Union Corp. is nearly invisible here.

Tucked inside a downtown office building, its wood-toned offices are accessible only by a tiny, two-floor elevator found in a corner of the retail branch lobby of its partner Hongkong Chinese Bank.

The small footprint is intentional. Unlike the U.S. money-center banks in Hong Kong, "we don't have a full branch, and that's an advantage," said John McFadden, a vice president and the manager of trade bank and product development for First Union's international group. "We have no huge investment in bricks and mortar."

Mr. McFadden, who is based in Charlotte, N.C., First Union's hometown, expresses optimism about the bank's prospects in Hong Kong even though China is to regain its sovereignty here in July.

First Union's primary activity in Hong Kong is supplying letters of credit so that its clients, largely U.S.-based discount retailers and apparel merchandisers, can buy goods made in China, Hong Kong, and the Pacific Rim. These businesses either buy for other companies, distribute, or import for shipment back to the United States.

Its partner here, Hongkong Chinese Bank, is 50% owned by China Resources (Holdings) Co., the largest mainland Chinese trading company incorporated in Hong Kong and an affiliate of the largest state-owned enterprises in China.

The partnership gives "unique access," said Mr. McFadden, and may provide a "degree of insulation from regulatory changes that might be imposed on how foreign banks do business there."

First Union has no operations in China but is planning a representative office in Shanghai. China is grooming that city to be its financial capital, as Hong Kong is financial capital of the East, say Chinese officials - including Shanghai Mayor Xu Kuangdi, an urbane fellow with a grip on western business.

"Hong Kong will provide the bridge or window to Shanghai," said Mr. Xu, who was educated in London and learned about capitalism firsthand as an executive for a Scandinavian company.

Although many Chinese fled Hong Kong in the 1980s, the American Chamber of Commerce here reports a "reverse brain drain." In the past two to three years, three times the number who fled then have settled or returned.

Among the merchants, said Mr. McFadden, there is an overall feeling that Hong Kong will be able to preserve its unique capitalistic style despite having to report to Beijing.

The central government's entertaining a group of foreign business journalists recently and the actions of successful Chinese living in Hong Kong who have invested some $75 billion back into China are thought to reflect changing attitudes in Beijing.

"It used to be pretty monolithic," said Mr. McFadden. "Everything was driven by the master plan. But over the last five or seven years there has been a lot of decentralization, and a lot more of the investment decisions are made by local authorities at the provincial and sometimes at the city level."

Though China is a poor country - the average rural income is about $200 a year - Mr. McFadden notes that now people are permitted to go out and start businesses of their own.

The Asian market makes up most of First Union's import/export business. First Union HKCB Asia, its joint venture with Hongkong China Bank, handled $5.7 billion in trade transactions in 1995 and was expecting that to hit $6.5 billion last year.

"We obviously have our own people there, and they're fairly well connected," said Mr. McFadden. "So we're going to be able to keep our ear to the ground pretty closely.

"Our primary plan is to grow the business as rapidly as possible ... to support our customers and help Hongkong Chinese Bank to achieve its goals in the local economy."

First Union's point man in Hong Kong is Joe Thompson, a vice president of international operations. Mr. Thompson, who transferred here from Charlotte in August 1995, said his job is to ensure that the bank's U.S. customers get the service they've come to expect in the States.

"That means you become a liaison for everything," he said.

Mr. Thompson leaves the bank at 5 or 5:30 most evenings but by 9 is back on the phone or working E-mail, faxes, or the bank's intranet from home. He usually quits about midnight; with seven- and 12-hour time differences, that is the only way he can compare notes with First Union offices in London and the United States.

But as Mr. Thompson stood on the carpeted floor of First Union's office loft overlooking the Hongkong Bank's tiled lobby below, he noted that things are done differently in Hong Kong.

"In the U.S. market everyone wants it done five minutes ago; it's a driven environment. Here in Asia there is still a tremendous emphasis on the personal touch, on taking time to sit down with someone."

It is like the way people still imagine the old American South to work, he said. For example, "a messenger delivering the letter of credit would be considered cold, removed," he said - people are much more likely to visit the bank in person.

Mr. Thompson said the Chinese staff members of his venture and Hongkong Chinese Bank are "unbelievably great to work with. "The effort they put in to accommodate is just astounding."

In particular he noted a "lack of rhetoric." "If we come up with a strategy for a client, we just go ahead with it. It's very clear.

"My job is to understand the needs of the U.S. customer," Mr. Thompson said. "Theirs is to know how to get those things done on the local level."

Ms. Duffy is a freelance writer based in Edison, N.J.

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