Overcoming the culture clash

Investment banker Adriana Tong knows all about cultural clashes.

She met her Kiwi husband Morlan - a third generation New Zealand Chinese - while studying at Waikato University. But her Singapore-based family weren't pleased at the match, coming here to "make sure everything was in order" before they married, she said. "It was a lot harder back then."

Tong studied economics and psychology at Waikato - one a meal ticket and the other helped her better understand the world. Having now lived in New Zealand for 45 years, Tong said the economics degree had come in handy in her role as founding shareholder/director of Asia Pacific Partners Ltd.

Her other partners are Dame Jenny Shipley and Abdul Rahman Saif Al Ghurair. The firm helps companies do business in North and Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

She also runs the Nekta Group (95 per cent owned), which sells functional food products including kiwifruit-based beverages and is about to launch a co-branded health product with Blis Technologies (see story below). Tong bought the Nekta technology 20 years ago - a kiwifruit-based ingredient that can reduce fat content.

The company's products are in New Zealand supermarkets and the majority are exported to 17 countries including China. The Fonterra whey protein scare last year had impacted the Kiwi company even though it doesn't sell infant formula, Tong said. "It's been a difficult 12 months".

Tong set up her own company after the 1987 sharemarket crash. Her particular bent is in the nutriceutical area and she thought she could add value to Kiwi companies expanding into Asia. APPL sometimes also invests in the companies it advises.

One she's worked with and invested in is the Alpha Group which has developed a natural health product extracted from mushrooms targeted at cancer. The technology was started in China by Professor Gao Yi Huai and continued when he came to New Zealand. However, the Chinese government remained interested and provided bare land at a peppercorn rental for Alpha to establish a biology science park in Ningde, in Fujian province. The company's natural health product is sold in 50 provinces in China, along with India, Thailand and Myanmar.

Tong said how fast China changes is shown by Ningde's population, which was 300,000 when the park started eight years ago, now at the 4.5 million mark.

Tong said one failing she sees in Kiwi businesses is their dislike of partnering, even though this can often help get their product or service to market a lot faster. APPL's role is to start and look after relationships, once the connections are made.

"I often feel like the meat in the sandwich," Tong said wryly. "It's not always easy but I'm upfront with people." She thinks Kiwis fail to understand the Asian markets they're targeting - to the point where one of the first things she does when advising companies is to make them accompany her to visit the market in person.

"Once people can see they better understand what I'm on about. I save myself 12 months' work that way." She stays in China up two months each year to maintain market connections.

She also gets frustrated at networking opportunities that go begging in New Zealand. Tong cites the example of a recent visit by alumni of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, a non-profit business school established by Hong Kong entrepreneur Li Ka Shing. Notable alumni include Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma and and Wu Yajun, China's richest woman.

APPL sponsored the $40,000 or so cost of the visit and while it ended successfully, Tong said she literally had to beg people to attend a networking function for the alumni. Its chairman, Chiu Yong, is part of the family-owned Fu Wah Group, which is building a $200 million hotel in Auckland's Wynyard Quarter by 2017.

"We have a saying: Make friends before you do business."

Brought to you in association with NZ Asian Leaders.

Sunday Star Times