I was in Hong Kong recently for Chinese New Year and to visit relatives.

In between the huge helpings of white turnip cake, the Buddhist vegetarian food with rice on New Year’s Day, the fireworks over Victoria Harbour, and the incessant giving of lai see (red packets with freshly printed banknotes inside) to my thousand and one in-law children, I managed to fit in some business.

Gift-giving and local traditions are entwined in Asian business. You only have to see Chinese bosses giving lai-see packets to their employees at Chinese New Year to know this is true.

As I donned my red brocade Chinese jacket (left hand pocket for lai see packet to give, right hand pocket for the rare lai see packet received), it occurred to me that I had become a bit like a Chinese businessman myself. I was taking part in this annual ritual almost by instinct.

Unlike in the early days of my participation, Chinese traditions had become second nature. I was more or less a local.

So when I returned to London and read a case study on the UK Trade and Investment Task Force Asia website about finding the right partner for UK companies in Asia, I was immediately drawn to the author’s top tips for doing business in Asia.

“Spend as much time as you can with your partners and get on their wavelength,” wrote Patricia Freshwater, Commercial Director of Global Flood Defence Systems (GFDS), a Worcestershire-based provider of sustainable flood defence systems.

After the disastrous floods that hit Thailand, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in the summer of 2011 (including my holiday home), GFDS found themselves in high demand from potential distributors in Asia. Sensibly, they focused on an international development strategy rather than simply taking on ad hoc projects.

This strategy consisted of establishing lasting relationships and a network of trusted distributors/partners across the region.  Once they had short-listed candidates in Thailand and the Philippines, they chose partners based on commitment, entrepreneurial drive, passion for their products and brand, and synergy with the core values of GFDS.

After due diligence, a Thai partner and a Philippine partner were appointed and others are in the pipeline for Malaysia and South Korea. So far, so good you may say. But how will GFDS develop the lasting relationship that will be pivotal to their success in the region?

In addition to “getting on the same wavelength” Patricia’s tips for working with Asian partners include:

  1. Overcoming the language barrier through clear communication at all times and having a clear and consistent point of contact.
  2. Continuing to spend a lot of time with your partner through at a least six visits a year (the team in the Philippines bring over their families from UK to Cebu in the summer)
  3. Making the Asian partner feel part of the company, its brand and values.
  4. Not being surprised if the first hour of business meetings is taken up with personal conversation as part of the “getting to know you” process.
  5. No forgetting to take gifts!
  6. And finally, remembering to respect any cultural differences and traditions, for example by dressing appropriately (particularly if you are a woman) for your meetings and in accordance with the cultural norms of the country.

This advice may sound to you like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many companies launching into Asia forget all about the cultural sensitivity. They hurry through the “getting to know you” process, they ignore the emphasis on long-term relationships and not immediate returns, and they are always impatient to board the next plane. In other words, they forget how important communication is to building lasting business success.

If you are going into Asian business with a partner or using any other way to launch and develop your business, be sure to understand why culture in important. Have a firm grasp of business etiquette. And be able to communicate yourself and your company to stand out!


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