The key ingredients for cracking the business bigtime in Asia can be found close to home, says a local academic.

Professor Natasha Hamilton-Hart, the new director of the University of Auckland's New Zealand Asia Institute, says that while strategies vary, a common characteristic of businesses that have done well in Asian markets is that they have bilingual staff.

And with limited Asian language teaching available for New Zealanders, local Asian-Kiwi populations provide a shortcut for businesses seeking success in Asia.

She says not having the language skills to communicate directly with clients unnecessarily distances companies from their markets.

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Getting "Asian-savvy", says Hamilton-Hart, means businesses are less likely to be blindsided by events.

"If you're having to go through your distributor for everything and you can't read the local news, you don't get a direct sense of what your customer requirements are."

Because the rest of the world has made an effort to learn English as a second language, New Zealanders tend to be monolingual and as a result don't realise how hard it is for all but the truly bilingual to speak in another language, she says.

"You're putting your contacts in the other country in the position of having to make that much extra effort.

"If you're having to talk through an interpreter it's very hard to establish a rapport.

"You don't go off-script very much if everything is going through an interpreter."

Alongside the language skills is the cultural competence that enables companies to interpret business interactions through a local, rather than New Zealand, lens.

Hamilton-Hart says a survey of businesses entering the China market revealed many felt they were being held back by an over-reliance on their agent or distributor in the country.
Unless they had a great agent, it meant they never developed a connection with the market or gained direct feedback on product adaption or localisation, she says.

"One of our huge issues is how to raise the value-add and to have a differentiated, higher value product that isn't going to be competing as a commodity - how to get away from the bulk milk powder or raw sawn logs - and for that you need a higher degree of connection with your marketplace, otherwise you're going to be selling as a commodity seller.

"That's going to always be a price game, which in the end is hard for us to sustain.

"If you've got a commodity that's in plentiful supply and you've got a market you might think 'what's the problem?' but as a growth strategy for New Zealand, that's not a great story and for many companies there's a certain amount of frustration too.

If you're having to go through your distributor for everything and you can't read the local news, you don't get a direct sense of what your customer requirements are.

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"If they can't get into that more niche, high value area then they're going to struggle, for instance, when a new competitor comes along."

She says local graduates with a foot in both New Zealand and Asia are an under-used resource.

"It's a sort of 'you don't know what you don't know' and I think sometimes people don't realise how much they're missing out through not having the language capacity, the cultural knowledge, the insider perspective."

Hamilton-Hart says even someone who has spent time on the ground in Asia or studied the region is an asset.

She has spent a lot of time working in both Australia and Singapore and says both countries have committed to Asian culture and languages being studied at all levels of the education system.

Sometimes people don't realise how much they're missing out through not having the language capacity, the cultural knowledge, the insider perspective.

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By contrast, language programmes here appear to be piecemeal at school, with no New Zealand university currently offering southeast Asian languages - a backward step from 20 years ago, when both Victoria and Auckland universities taught Indonesian, she says.

Hamilton-Hart says the $34.5 million government funding announced in this year's
Budget to set up new centres of Asia-Pacific Excellence was welcome but overdue.
It's a long-term play, but Hamilton-Hart says New Zealand businesses too often focus on getting some quick wins.

She says a common feature of businesses here is that the company itself is the product, with a goal of reaching a certain size before looking to find a buyer for the business.

It's the opposite of her experience in southeast Asia, where companies were established with a long-term aim of growing and being handed on down the generations.

An eye on the short-term spills over into deals, where unless you're in the fortunate position of having a raw product in high demand, a longer-term approach is what is needed, she says.

Hamilton-Hart says product differentiation and local adaption gets sidelined by New Zealand companies in favour of a transactional focus on extracting as much as possible from each deal.

"I think that is a very short-term, very mercenary approach, which gets noticed on the other side."

Making it in Asia:

• Go beyond standard market research and really get to grips with the wider culture and politics at play.

• Share stories of failure as well as success.

• Use our 1.5ers - the Kiwi Asians who were born in Asia but educated in New Zealand.

• Start small, picking one or two Chinese cities or a smaller Asian country such as Singapore.