Three things holding Australian business back

For anyone who may still have had lingering doubts, we are most definitely in the midst of the Asian century. The wave of Free Trade Agreements signed in quick succession over the past 12 months – including one of the most expansive FTAs ever signed by China - should put any remaining debate to rest.

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So if we are to seize this opportunity, and transform the Australian economy, we first need to understand what is holding Australian business back?

"All too often there is a difficulty in translating such a huge opportunity into success for individual firms or even industries."

ANZ's recent report "Caged Tiger: The Transformation of the Asian Financial System" showed Chinese foreign direct investment is predicted to rise from around $US500 billion in 2012 to around $US9.5 trillion by 2030. The US and Europe will receive less of China's outward investment as Chinese FDI increasingly favours Asia-Pacific markets.

We also know the China Australia Free Trade agreement puts many of our important sectors on a more competitive footing internationally. With Australia's newly minted 'most favoured nation' status, we will automatically receive the same treatment provided by China to any other country in the future, including the EU and the United States.

However, all too often there is a difficulty in translating such a huge opportunity into success for individual firms or even industries. Today, only a small fraction of our small and medium-sized businesses in Australia export and a recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit tells us only 19 per cent of businesses have taken advantage of recent FTAs.

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See the full infographic.


So, what exactly is holding Australia back? There are several clear themes. Firstly, there are cultural and language barriers. This is still one of the biggest challenges to doing business in China. To be honest, that doesn't surprise me.

As a kid growing up in Melbourne, I went to a school where we were taught British and American History, geography studies focused on Europe and the US, and in terms of languages, it was French or Italian.

While that's served me well in the odd game of Trivial Pursuit, I know I could have avoided more than a few mistakes with a better appreciation of Asia before I first landed in Hong Kong in 1996 and then again later when I ran ANZ's Asia business in 2006.

It sounds obvious but many people make the mistake of thinking of Asia as if it was one place with one culture. They fail to respect the cultural differences of each country and ultimately end up paying the price.

Learning a country's language involves learning the customs of that country. It challenges you to think outside your native environment and be curious about unfamiliar cultures.

As ANZ continues to grow our footprint across the Asia Pacific region, attracting and retaining staff with an understanding of the languages, cultures and ways of doing business in our major trading partners is critical to ANZ's success.

So, if it's not on your list already, my first piece of advice is to develop an Asia-capable team, more specifically, a China-capable team. It will be critical to your success too.


Secondly, there are legal and regulatory challenges. China has made huge improvements in streamlining bureaucracy over the past two decades, making everyday tasks like obtaining travel documents much easier.

Official seals and documents are an ordinary fact of life in China and if you're doing business there, dealing with Chinese bureaucracy is too. Let's not forget this is true for any foreign market regardless of political system. No two provinces there are alike and you will face a lot red tape when applying for permits and approvals.

I talk to a lot of CEOs and while I hear many stories of companies successfully setting up businesses in China, it's not uncommon to also hear about problems that come to bear years later when businesses try to repatriate profits and invested capital back to Australia.

The China-Australia Free Trade Agreement and continued liberalisation in China will make these things significantly easier but you still need to spend time getting your commercial settings right – particularly your capital structures. Engage the right advisors early - both to understand the different, complex regulations but also to avoid any costly pitfalls.


And that brings me to the last challenge - having someone on the ground. In China, you can't afford to hold back. Go there, meet people and make connections.

In China, trust lies at the core of all relationships and it is critical given guanxi (loosely translated as 'relationships') is regarded as the key to unlocking profitable and highly productive business dealings. Deep business connections – and finding your trusted person on the ground - can only really be done effectively in person.

By spending time in China, you'll be able to meet insiders with experience, quickly surround yourself with trusted advisors who can help you navigate the landscape and invest in local managers early on.

Austrade's network of trade advisers in Australia and China can help, as can members of the Australia China Business Council and Chamber of Commerce. Use your networks and make connections.

For far too long, leaders in Australia have been focussed on talking our economic prospects down. Business confidence remains historically low. Why is that?

Everywhere we turn, we're hearing about the effects of the transition to a non-mining led economy being more sluggish than expected, political instability, global economic malaise and concerns over global security.

Despite all this negativity, I am starting to see some new signs of confidence. It's early days but the green shoots are there. Some business leaders are slowly beginning to invest again and many are ready to focus on the positives.

The Australia-China free trade agreement could be a major turning point for this country – especially given Australia's most-favoured nation status.

Consider the success of New Zealand's FTA with China, which has been far broader than the economic benefits it delivered. New Zealand is now a more confident nation open to foreign investment. Its producers know they are the equal of anywhere else in the world. Now it's Australia's turn.

Over half of the business community we surveyed told us they feel more positive towards doing business with China as a result of the China-Australia free trade agreement.

If you're a farmer, a retailer, educational institution, manufacturer or tourism operator, success will depend on how quickly you can adapt to the needs of your new customers, build networks to navigate new markets and spend much more time in the most exciting region in the world.

Australian companies have a great reputation for governance, for standards, for quality and for the Australian brand. Our future is inextricably tied to Asia and we're the lucky country for it.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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