Travelling the world as a New Zealand businessperson can be a heartening exercise. This past October I completed a two-year term as the Chairman of one of the world's largest law firm networks; Multilaw which has a membership of 8,000 lawyers within 79 firms in 68 countries. During my tenure I travelled for some 8 months overall, and had the privilege to meet nearly a quarter of those lawyers in person, and many other international lawyers and business people, throughout Asia, Europe, Middle East and North and South America.
Travelling to some 63 cities in 40 countries, from Seoul to La Paz, Minneapolis to Bogota, Taipei to Warsaw, and so on, there is a rich opportunity to understand how New Zealand is seen from around the world.
Kiwis have a significant advantage in our relative lack of baggage. In my experience, one is warmly received when arriving in a new country as a New Zealander. There is a general affection for our culture and our country. We are regarded as open, helpful, transparent and trustworthy. This gives us a great starting point in an international business environment.
In my work for Multilaw there were some complex situations to be dealt with which were seen very differently by members coming from so many countries and cultures and whose first languages were so diverse. My two years as Multilaw Chairman taught me that if in doubt, being ourselves, as Kiwis, helps build communication, understanding and trust.
Coming from where we do gives us other strengths in conducting international business including our strong embrace of technology, our active engagement with social media and the fact that many of us are, by necessity, relatively well travelled. Moreover, over time New Zealand has become a truly cosmopolitan place and we have the opportunity to become familiar with many different cultures on our own shores.
The Kiwi business brand still needs work however. Often the first topic of conversation is around tourism. There is a reasonable knowledge that our trade is dominated by primary produce, but often without much detail of what our strengths there are. But beyond that, thinks can get hazy. For example, often there is not a good knowledge of the depth of our technology industries, and the innovation they exhibit, or the opportunities for foreign investment into New Zealand.
On a positive note I was constantly surprised in how many countries a local law firm mentioned that they had a New Zealand client. This is the case not only in the US and the UK, but across Asia and South America. We do have a good international footprint for the size of our economy.
Speaking English is an advantage and a disadvantage. With language skills come an invaluable understanding of culture. It was embarrassing to me in how many countries those I was meeting with had to switch from their language to English to conduct our business. It was impressive to see so many people around the world able to effortlessly switch from one language to another, and often to another again. To share their language is to share a closer bond.
My travels taught me just how lucky we are to have the opportunity to do business in and from New Zealand. Time and again, in the 63 cities I visited, the discussion turned to problems that arise from government. We regard democracy, and a competent, non-corrupt government as normal.
But it is amazing how few countries have a political system that delivers those three qualities. I'd prefer not to list the countries who hosted me where they complained about the negative impact of their poor government, politics and corruption. But I challenge you to list the countries around the world that do deliver democracy, with competent non-corrupt government. It's a surprisingly short list.
Of course business people do have a way of working around policy challenges. For example in Ecuador and Bolivia where current left wing policies have made their countries less attractive to US investors, Chinese investors have taken the opportunity to fill some of the gap. Often there is no need to fear particular policies, but rather to properly understand their effect. Business tends to go on.
It is very clear that doing business in any new country requires study and collaboration with those on the ground who can bring a sophisticated local knowledge into the equation. As we know there are examples of large New Zealand companies which have paid the price of insufficiently understanding the local conditions in an economy as apparently similar as that in Australia.
It is highly valuable to travel outside New Zealand to expand the mind. For example, it is hard to conceive of the economic power and entrepreneurial vigour of places like China and Singapore without seeing them with one's own eyes. And it is hard to understand how differently the structures of many established Western European economies operate when compared to newer economies such as our own.
As New Zealanders, we are well placed to expand our international trade and investment but we must remain energetic about knowing about what is happening around the world. Businesses dealing with particular countries must invest heavily in-depth local knowledge and effective contacts to reliably achieve their goals.
Lowndes Associates is a corporate and commercial law firm with offices in Auckland and Wellington. It is the representative of Multilaw in New Zealand.
Multilaw is the fourth largest international network of commercial law firms, with 8,000 lawyers in 79 firms in 68 countries. In 2013, Lowndes concluded a two-year term as chairman of the worldwide Multilaw network.