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B.C. needs to be more ambitious if it wants to become a major player in Asia: McKinsey

Managing director of global management consulting firm tells BCBC that the province’s business community must bridge gaps in Asian connections
Hong Kong harbour

BC is uniquely positioned to take advantage of huge demographic shifts in Asia.

But the province won’t benefit from that opportunity unless it overcomes its fear of Chinese business, becomes more ambitious and works harder to make social connections.

“I think that backpacking trips to Europe are not necessarily the best use of one’s time as a young person,” said Dominic Barton, global managing director of McKinsey & Company, in an address to Business Council of BC members on May 28.

In the next 20 to 30 years, 2.7 billion people in Asia are expected to become middle class consumers, said Barton, who is originally from B.C. but has spent much of his career in Korea, Shanghai and Australia.

In China, 350 million people will move to urban areas, 170 large-scale railway systems will be built and Chinese tourists will increase their trips abroad to 120 million from 80 million.

Barton identified five areas where B.C. can shine in Asia (see sidebar):




•education; and


Barton challenged B.C. business to follow Australia’s example to “pivot” toward Asia.

“How much of your [company’s] footprint is in this part of the world? How much of your talent is from this part of the world, how much of your board is from this part of the world, and what are the linkages in our education system?”

While Vancouver may see itself as a fully-fledged member of the Asia-Pacific economy, it’s news to the Asian business leaders Barton meets with regularly.

The hesitation goes both ways: Asia Pacific Foundation polls show that Canadians “display a lingering hesitation and concern about Asia” and are distrustful of Chinese companies becoming major stakeholders in Canadian companies.

“I think there’s a bit of a view of Canada today: ‘Do they want us or not?’” said Barton. “This comes back to this image that we have: Are we players? Are we interested in what’s going on?”

To bridge the gap, Canadians need to make more social connections with China and other Asian countries.

While China is eager to send students to Canadian universities, Barton said Canadian students at both the university and high school level also need to be going to China to study – and in the process make connections and develop cultural understanding that might bear future fruit.

According to McKinsey & Company’s Dominic Barton, B.C. will need to bring its A-game to take advantage of these five sectors:


“If you look at the total cost [of LNG] by source, where it’s coming from, B.C. is in a very good position compared with Australia. There is a bit of a timing issue on this, because people do set contracts and build relationship over time. We have a limited window to get this done or the opportunity will be gone.”

Agriculture “We think that British Columbia can play a role in [agrifood], especially because of the brand that British Columbia has of safety and quality.”

Tourism “Chinese travellers say [what] they’re looking for [in a vacation]: relieve work pressures and relax, natural landscape and sea and mountains ... When you start to look at the numbers, Canada’s not high on that list [of destinations] ... [But] when you actually ask how satisfied those few Chinese travellers that do come to Canada [are], it’s the highest satisfaction rating of all the countries they travel to.”

Education “There’s a billion Asian youth that need to be educated. Our estimates are that there are three million Asians who would like to come to Canada for higher education ... Part of it is students coming here; in my view, it’s also about our education systems going over there … If I was able to buy BCIT [British Columbia Institute of Technology], I would buy it and franchise a thousand of them across Asia.”

Infrastructure “The Asian infrastructure market will be a $27 trillion market. We have some phenomenal engineering infrastructure firms here [in B.C.] and I think that we have to figure out why aren’t we participating more in that market.”