Christopher Niesche: Getting it right in Asia critical, but right experience being overlooked

Shanghai's business district. Australian businesses continue to struggle to tap into the wealth of Asia. Photo / NZME
Shanghai's business district. Australian businesses continue to struggle to tap into the wealth of Asia. Photo / NZME

Anyone who has ever done business in Asia, however briefly, will be familiar with the business card ritual.

There's no sliding your card across a boardroom table as the meeting gets underway or dealing them out like you're playing a game of poker.

You show respect by presenting your business card with both hands, holding it out for the person in front of you to receive. Then you take their business card in the same way, taking it with both hands and take time to reverently study the card as if it's the most fascinating thing you have ever seen.

(A business card is considered to be like a person's face, so slipping it into your wallet and your back pocket then sitting down on it is a very bad look.)

This is just one tiny example of the many cultural and business mores that make doing business in Asia challenging for Westerners.

Australia should be well positioned to navigate our way around Asia. With a large number of Australians of Asian background and a rapidly growing pool of Australians working and studying in Asia, we have the people with the connections and the linguistic and cultural know-how to succeed in region.

But that is where the good news ends.

About 17 per cent of people living and working in Australia - about 4 million people - claim Asian origin.

However, this huge pool of knowledge and experience isn't being tapped. According to figures from PwC, just 2 per cent of senior executives of ASX200 companies have an Asian background and just 4 per cent of company directors are from Asia.

Individual Australians are engaging with Asia like never before.

A PwC report released last week "Our diaspora's got talent - Australia's advantage in Asia", says an increasing number of Australians are working and studying in Asia and projects that by 2030 that number will have swollen to 450,000 Australians.

Yet when these people return home, they are being passed over by corporate Australia, who do not seem to value their experience.

"Our country has the talent to succeed in Asia, but the reality is they simply don't work for Australian companies," PwC says.

Furthermore, Australian companies are very timid when it comes to investing and expanding into Asia.

And when they do put resources into establishing their business in Asia, their shareholders don't like it. So often, we see a company's share price surge after it announces it is giving up on Asia and pulling out of the region.

It's part of the short-term focus of investors which is hampering the long-term growth prospects of so many companies and the economy. Investors would prefer the quick gains to be made by cutting costs in Australia - population 23 million - compared with the much more difficult job of making a go of it in Asia - population 4 billion.

It's a strange state of affairs.

For the past four decades we have been told that Australia's future lies with Asia. Every week, it seems, another think tank, consultancy or quango puts out a report outlining the huge economic opportunities to the north of us.

Yet, we haven't done much about it. It's as if recognising what's on offer is enough.

The mining boom didn't help much either. Australia did very well out of selling bulk iron ore and coal to China, yet the next stage of growth is going to be much more difficult.

Asian economies are transforming. The growth drivers are switching from infrastructure development - hence the need for coal and iron - to consumption.

This is where the next opportunities lie - in providing tourism, education, healthcare, investment and financial expertise, and professional services. Food is the other big opportunity, as increasingly wealthy Asian consumers demand more meat and dairy products from countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

Selling these sorts of products and services requires a level of engagement with and understanding of Asia that isn't necessary when shipping bulk commodities. It also requires time and investment.

The potential rewards are huge.

There are about half a billion middle class consumers in Asia - in itself a sizeable market. But that pales into insignificance compared to what's to come.

Ernst & Young estimates that by 2030, China alone will have a middle class of about a billion people and India will have about half a billion.

"A significant proportion of the new Asian middle class are also expected to be at the upper end of the income bracket, with impressive spending power," EY said.

These numbers aren't secrets known to Australia alone. The rest of the world is also eyeing the opportunities in Asia and there is a risk that Australia gets left behind.

It would be a great pity if, having identified these opportunities so many decades ago, we did nothing about them.

- NZ Herald

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