House of Fraser boss wants Brexit 'signal'

By Robin Brant
BBC News, Nanjing

Image caption,
Yuan Yafei took control of House of Fraser almost four years ago

A major Chinese employer in the UK has warned Prime Minister Theresa May she needs to give a "definite signal" about the kind of Brexit deal she wants.

Billionaire department store owner Yuan Yafei, who controls House of Fraser, spoke to the BBC on the eve of Theresa May's visit to China.

With about 17,000 thousand staff on his books in the UK, the 53-year-old has a major interest in Britain's future.

He said it was important for the UK government to reassure people.

Speaking to the BBC at his flagship store in Nanjing, Mr Yuan told me he had "confidence" and predicted that leaving the EU would "not be too bad" for the UK economy.

But he reiterated that a strong signal was needed from the person at the very top of the UK government.

Mr Yuan, who said he started out in business by selling computers by a toilet, took control of House of Fraser almost four years ago.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Yuan Yafei took control of House of Fraser almost four years ago

He said he was planning a big expansion of the chain in China.

The six-floor House of Fraser store in Nanjing is modelled on the Glasgow branch, with its distinctive glass ceiling.

Part of the ground floor is taken up with an area called British place, which sells an array of china cups and mugs with the union flag or royal motif on.

There are numerous British brands on sale throughout the six levels of the department store. Each floor has been given the name of a London landmark.

During an interview on the eve of the UK prime minister's three-day visit, in which future trade relations will figure prominently, Mr Yuan rejected the accusation that China unfairly restricted access to its markets for some foreign firms, while taking advantage of far more open economies such as the UK.

He said "many countries have policies to protect their economy", adding that he is confident that China's Communist Party-led government will "open up more" soon.

Mr Yuan has cultivated a relationship with Prince William through a wildlife foundation. A photograph of a beaming Yuan Yafei, one of China's richest people, alongside the Prince, is on display in House of Fraser's VIP room.

Both governments maintain that this is still a golden era in relations between China and the UK.

At the outset of her premiership, Theresa May seemed more cautious about that than her predecessor.

Mr Yuan ended our interview with a beaming smile, saying he welcomed the Prime Minister's visit and adding that he believed in the global era "no country can ignore China".