In the decades since, Hisense has grown to become the top TV brand in China, Australia and South Africa, employing more than 80,000 people across 54 companies.
Seven years ago, without fanfare, Hisense entered the UK market by establishing a base in Leeds. It has enjoyed phenomenal growth in Britain ever since and provides a case study for anyone who believes the brightest and best global firms should establish a presence in our region.
Globally, the firm is probably best known for its role as the official television supplier for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. But Howard Grindrod, the Harrogate-based vice president of Hisense UK, also wants the firm to be recognised as a passionate supporter of the Northern Powerhouse.
He leads the British subsidiary of one of the world’s largest electronics and consumer goods manufacturers which first rose to prominence in our region with its triumph at the 2017 Ward Hadaway Yorkshire Fastest 50 Awards, which are run in partnership with The Yorkshire Post.
The company was named Fastest Growing Large Business and Overall Fastest Growing Business at the awards, which recognise and celebrate the fastest-growing privately-owned companies across Yorkshire. But why did this global giant resist the pull of the South-East and head to Beeston, on the outskirts of Leeds?
“For us the logical place to be was Yorkshire, because we had a good customer base in the North of England,” says Mr Grindrod.
“There is a good skills base up here. It is common knowledge that a lot of Chinese people get educated in the northern universities. We based ourselves here because we had the contacts and the skill-sets. It seemed the straightforward thing to do. We didn’t get any objections from our parent company either. Usually, large international businesses like to focus themselves on the capital. “
The bosses at Hisense allow their regional managers to exercise a significant degree of autonomy.
“I’ve known the senior people who have been running Hisense for about 20 years,’’ said Mr Grindrod.
“For the last 10 years there has been a movement from the corporation to move the brand into America, Australia and South Africa. Europe was a big final piece.
“Every subsidiary of Hisense has developed in its own way. Here in the UK, for instance, we started off selling refrigeration products. From that we moved into laundry products, and from that we moved into TV.
“We’ve got a lot of other product groups and we have evolved since then. We bought a European company in Slovenia last year. We’ve managed to leverage the consumers’ appetite for change. You have to build up an equity behind the brand.”
The UK market is always open to new brands, according to Mr Grindrod, but consumers soon spread the word if you don’t deliver what you have promised.
“With the modern way of trading and communicating, you really cannot launch inferior products these days,’’ he says.
“If a product is bad, it’s going to be on the internet very quickly.
“When we started the business we were focused on making sure that the infrastructure the business was built on was secure. One of the watch-phrases for the organisation was, ‘step by step’. Our retail customers had to trust us at every step.”
In the last few years, Hisense UK’s turnover has rocketed, a fact which must surely delight Mr Grindrod’s bosses in China.
He said: “Our first full year of trading in the UK was 2013 and our turnover then was about £2.5m. We’re now moving annual total turnover of well over £100m. Over the first three years our growth was incremental. Since 2016, our business has taken off quite rapidly.”
He added: “One of Hisense’s key strengths is that they have got a really global reach. We are given a fair degree of flexibility to prove ourselves. We’ve got a very patient and very knowledgeable owner.
“We’ve now got additional product groups. We now are very firmly in the cooking market and the dishwashing market. We’ve extended our ability to make a wider range of laundry products, including washing-dryers and tumble-dryers.
“We have other product groups that we haven’t really moved into yet. The corporation is the fourth- or fifth-biggest manufacturer of air-conditioners in China. We also make mobile phones, but we haven’t really entered that market. There are lots of product groups where we haven’t really started.”
In common with many business leaders, Mr Grindrod has been infuriated by failings in the North’s transport system. He has added his voice to calls for a devolution deal which can improve connections between the big northern cities.
His opinions must carry weight. Hisense UK is just the type of company Yorkshire needs to attract and retain if we are serious about competing on a global stage.
“You want to keep things simple,’’ says Mr Grindrod.” People just want to get from A to B. In the old days, you got in your car and you drove to a place, you parked your car outside and you went in and saw somebody. Those days are gone.”
He believes policymakers must focus on improving east-to-west connectivity across the North. They should also focus on the crucial last leg of the journey.
He said: “How do you get to your final destination? Are there bus links? Are there tram links? Do you have to rely on taxis?
“Every single village and every single community used to have a railway going into it. A lot of those [railway stations] have been built over and the land has been sold off. With the benefit of hindsight that sort of connectivity would be a dream now.”
He believes Yorkshire’s business leaders and politicians must bang the drum for the region on the national stage. “More and more London is regarded as another country, in all sorts of ways,’’ he says. “Yorkshire has a GDP which is bigger than 11 of the member states of the EU. Yorkshire in itself is a significant economic bloc.
“It’s about getting local politicians to have the voice in London and gaining as much leverage as they can from the local companies that have established themselves in the region.
“It’s good for the country. The Northern Powerhouse provides a cohesive term which stands repetition and re-invention as well.”
He believes the great northern cities should campaign together to attract investment. Channel 4’s move to Leeds shows what can be achieved. The fact that a high-profile national broadcaster is moving to Yorkshire should provide a boost for all those who are demanding investment and devolution across the North.
“If you tune into the BBC, you are seeing people on the sofa at Salford Quays,’’ says Mr Grindrod.“When they start Channel 4 up here, you are probably going to have the early evening news coming from Leeds. It starts joining the dots together.”