Gary Teeling is the epitome of a foreign entrepreneurial businessman living in China; he is the co-owner of the very popular Friend's Bar, as well as a shareholder in a number of others, not to mention running Gabrian International Ltd, a family trading company. Delta Bridges were very pleased to sit down with Gary, first and foremost to share his thoughts on the success and progress of Friend's Bar in Zhongshan, but also to hear about his very interesting, busy life, and perhaps get a few tips from one of the top businessmen in Zhongshan.
DB: What brought you to China originally and why did you open the bar?
GT: I'm originally from Canada and moved to Guangzhou in 1995 before settling in Zhongshan a year or so later as I wanted to extend the Gabrian company, a trading company specialising in electronics, which I had set up in Hong Kong with a friend.
Setting up Friends Bar in 1998 was never exactly part of the plan when I decided to move out here, it just happened. It was on a whim really – It was possible and I thought why not give it a shot? I had a little extra money to invest which was enough to rent a small place and set up and maintain a bar on a budget. Owning a bar is never going to make you millions, and we didn’t try to do that – it was essentially low key, and somewhere to meet with clients and friends. As it was the first foreign owned bar in Zhongshan business was originally slow, but the idea wasn't to make money, it was just a meeting place for us and a place to socialise - in fact, I even met my wife at the bar! We now have two kids, one is eight the other six and a half. We try to go back to Canada at least once a year and this summer we’re going back for a couple of months. However going back isn’t exactly essential – all my family is here, including my Mother and Father, who live in Zhongshan.
DB: What has changed about Zhongshan in that time?
GT: Business is better now than it has ever been. There's a new generation of young Chinese customers in their early 20s who have moved on from discos, who want to talk and chat among themselves - which is what Friend's Bar offers. Today's bars are much different from those where just the traditional dice games used to be played.
The current bar is the “second incarnation”, as the original one was torn down to make way for the International Hotel Parking Lot. The bar is in a great location in downtown Zhongshan, near to the Sheraton and other popular hotels, which makes the bar a destination for tourists staying in Zhongshan. Yet most of the customers are locals that have been very loyal to Friend's Bar. The great thing is, they are becoming more worldly-wise, and are a lot more open to imported beers and spirits than when we first opened.
DB: How does the nightlife in Zhongshan compare to other cities in the region?
GT: China and its cities are constantly changing and developing. Whilst I can’t say I’m fully aware of the nightlife in other cities in the region, I know that places are becoming more and more similar, whether they are foreign or locally owned bars, they all seem to be aiming for the same thing.
DB: What challenges have you faced whilst moving to China, and setting up Friend's Bar?
GT: When I first came to China, I was working at a factory where no one spoke any English and it was very difficult to communicate. However I took a four month language course to get the basics. My Chinese is pretty good now, yet Zhongshan is changing - more and more people are now speaking a little English, and there are also a lot more foreigners out here too!
In respect to the Bar, obviously it was tough to begin with - with it being a foreign owned it was very different to what the locals were used to. Yet now that Friend's bar is established and we have a great set of regular customers there's not much of a downside.
DB: So what's the best thing about owning your own bar?
GT: The best part would be having the chance to meet a wide variety of new people, Zhongshan is unique in itself, it feels like more of a community than most places, which is something I really like.
DB: Do you have any plans to expand?
GT: I’m quite content with how it is. It’s something we’ve thought about before, but it would be quite difficult and a lot of work. I’m very happy with having just Friend’s Bar to walk down to after work. I would like to look into having a small 'brewing area' somewhere in the bar just to keep it unique, but it's something we'll have to revisit at a later date. For now we're concentrating on making renovations to the stage area.
DB: What would have perhaps done differently if you could start again?
GT: The only thing would be to have not have drunk so much as I did when we first opened! It was obviously very tough to begin with whilst we were trying to establish the bar, I had to be down there everyday. Although the location may be a bit difficult to find, and people from across town are finding it difficult with the increased traffic in Zhongshan, I like the 'secret' feel to the place and I think that adds to the experience, so I wouldn't change that!
DB: What advice could you give to others, who were perhaps interested in setting up their own bar?
GT: Firstly you need to have the ability to adapt, the sophistication of the cliental is definitely increasing, people are hungry for new and different things, and if you don't adapt to these changes then competitors can very easily move into your niche.
Secondly, when you find good staff, treat them well. They will become like your family, I really do respect all of my staff, so much so that I only need to go down to the bar just a couple of times a week. They really have saved me a lot of trouble over the years!
by Michael Young