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Yong Hui Li, chairman and CEO of AutoChina, in New York's Times Square. The company's shares began trading on Nasdaq in in October, 2009. (Zef Nikolla)
Yong Hui Li, chairman and CEO of AutoChina, in New York's Times Square. The company's shares began trading on Nasdaq in in October, 2009. (Zef Nikolla)

Canada's expat advantage

A Canadian key drives a Chinese success Add to ...

Yan Shu Juan waves proudly at the large white bulletin board that displays her credit score to anyone who ventures inside an AutoChina International Ltd. dealership 260 kilometres south of Beijing.

"Look! I have 10 stars [out of 12]" boasts Ms. Yan, the owner of a three-vehicle trucking business that hauls coal from nearby Shanxi province to Zhengding.

A petite 39-year-old, Ms. Yan doesn't look like a budding trucking magnate. But that's exactly what this small business owner has become, thanks in large part to AutoChina, a truck leasing company that is revolutionizing how credit is distributed and vehicles are sold in rural China with ideas borrowed from Canada.

Yong Hui Li, AutoChina's founder, chairman and chief executive officer, is a 48-year-old Canadian citizen who discovered the model for his burgeoning empire 16 years ago while visiting a car dealership in Ontario. "There are many impressions that have been made on me from Canada," Mr. Li says. In addition to his truck leasing concept, he has built a shopping centre in China that is a facsimile of a mall in Burnaby, B.C.

Mr. Li is a so-called transnational - a Canadian citizen living and working abroad. About 2.8 million Canadians now live outside the country, according to the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. Many of these expatriate citizens, like Mr. Li, bridge two cultures and have become natural conduits for entrepreneurial ideas, taking concepts from Canada and adapting them to new environments.

<iframe width="600" height="400" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" marginheight="0" marginwidth="0" src="http://maps.google.ca/maps/ms?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&ie=UTF8&split=1&rq=1&ev=zo&hq=Mexico+Capital&hnear=&msa=0&msid=103335406819895550235.00048c9df2e4f63ed1e56&ll=15.284185,20.390625&spn=159.651986,61.171875&z=1&output=embed"></iframe><br /><small>View <a href="http://maps.google.ca/maps/ms?f=q&source=embed&hl=en&ie=UTF8&split=1&rq=1&ev=zo&hq=Mexico+Capital&hnear=&msa=0&msid=103335406819895550235.00048c9df2e4f63ed1e56&ll=15.284185,20.390625&spn=159.651986,61.171875&z=1" style="color:#0000FF;text-align:left">Canadian expat distribution</a> in a larger map</small>

The ranks of Canada's transnationals already outnumber the populations of many provinces. They are playing an increasingly important role in helping Canada build trade with other nations, and forge cultural and educational links to other societies. Especially in Asia, where 750,000 Canadian citizens now reside, the large number of bi-cultural Canadians provides a natural connecting point between very different societies. "They act as a business and social lubricant," says Paul Evans, director of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, who believes expatriates are an important bridge between Canadian commerce and foreign cultures.

Mr. Li shows how ideas can cross borders. He is taking the truck leasing concept he witnessed in Ontario and adapting it to the realities of rural China with capital he raised on the U.S.-based Nasdaq Stock Market, where AutoChina started trading last year. The story of how he tinkered with a North American business idea to make it work in Asia provides a road map for other Canadian entrepreneurs trying to seize on emerging opportunities in China.

Jeff Skoll, Vice President of EBAY, at his office in San Jose, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2000.
The downside of expat life Plus, meet Canadians running successful businesses abroad

Those opportunities can change quickly - as Mr. Li's career demonstrates. One of six children born to a poor farming family near Shjiazhuang, he managed to win a place at Tianjin University, where he earned a degree in laser technology.

In 1985 he returned to Shijiazhuang, but found it difficult to secure a well-paying job. He tried everything from being a technician in a locomotive factory to selling machinery.

In the late 1980s, he decided to go into business for himself. He traded aluminum ingots and set up a car-parts operation. Then, in 1994, on his initial visit to Canada, Mr. Li visited an auto dealer in Waterloo, Ont., with a friend from university.

"I was surprised that the Canadian banks and car dealers provided the service of car loans. At that time, China did not have that kind of service. Customers could not borrow enough money to buy a car," he recalls.

When he got back to China, Mr. Li was ready to launch his next business.

"I just copied the model of the Canadian car dealerships. The challenge was controlling the credit risks of the Chinese customers."

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