Business with Australia: culture clash

BELLA KATZ
Last updated 05:00 28/06/2013

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OPINION: New Zealand's sense of humour, lifestyle and early heritage may not be too different to Australia's, but business culture in the two countries is not the same.

Australians are generally a tougher bunch to deal with and the size of Australia - both geographically and in population - means each state or territory has its own reputation and rules, which to exporters can mean distinct markets within the overall Australian market.

Australians, like New Zealanders, are opinionated when it comes to defining parts of their country. It goes a little like this:

Sydney is the glamorous, international one that’s the hardest to crack, a little bit of LA in Oz. 

Melbourne is the traditional, conservative one where connections and old ties speak volumes. 

Brisbane is a little bit Vegas a little bit Miami: it follows its own more relaxed rules and laughs at the other two.

Adelaide is the quiet underdog: it’ll never be Sydney, never Melbourne and keeps on looking for that unique boutique positioning. 

Perth doesn’t need any of the other states - it does its own thing, it has mining and is closer to Asia.

Tasmania is remote, arty and a bit hippy – it's where you go when you choose to get away from it all.

Darwin is outback Australia. And Canberra – well, Canberra is the capital, but bears the brunt of a lot of Aussie jokes. And it has a lovely art gallery.

On the whole, New Zealand exporters I interviewed find the business culture of Australia less open and less reliable compared with home.

Deals take longer to close, decision makers are harder to find and even things that look very promising can backfire at the eleventh hour. But once you’re in, it’s well worth your while.

Annabel Langbein, who now has a cooking show on Australia's Foxtel network, says it takes a lot of hard work to make things happen in Australia.

“It’s very competitive and very parochial,” she says. “We always felt a bit like poor cousins across the ditch. How people do business in New Zealand is gentlemanly. In Australia it’s ruthless, tougher. We feel lucky with the Australian relationships we’ve established but it took a lot of work. Australian people are harder.”

Langbein thinks New Zealanders are still learning to market themselves well and believes that to succeed in Australia you can’t afford to sit and wait to be discovered. New Zealanders must get gutsier and make things happen for themselves, she says.

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Ian Cooper, head of global sales and marketing at Modtec Industries, thinks Australia is a tougher market, but akin to other international markets.

He believes the challenge for exporters is finding the right person to meet with, despite appearances to the contrary.

“In New Zealand there is a comfort with the person you deal with and you know when they will buy from you. In Australia, that may not win you the order as there are a whole lot of other influencers involved,” Cooper says. “In New Zealand you quickly work out the sphere of influencers, but they may not be immediately noticeable in Australia. The more contact you have with customers, the more likely the sale will be.

“We’ve never really experienced that ‘cutthroat’ [situation] where they stare you down,” adds Cooper. “Only once or twice have I sat in a meeting and had someone say, ‘I’ve heard it all before. Every supplier tells me this’”.

Co-founder of business improvement consultancy TakeON!, Leah Fisher, agrees you have to be prepared to wait for an Australian win.

“Whether it's finding a partner, getting the right appointment or winning business,” Fisher says, “it always takes longer than you think it will.

“In New Zealand there’s a lot more trust in relationships. It’s a small country and you don’t want to get a bad reputation. Australia is different. There is a greater emphasis on the transaction and the deliverables and evidence based work is much more desirable.”

“In the UK,” Fisher adds, “it’s difficult to make appointments whereas in Australia it’s easy to get appointments, but decisions take a long time.”

Elizabeth Barbalich, founder of skincare brand Antipodes Nature, recommends having a strong financial base before entering Australia.

“The Australian business culture can be pretty unforgiving,” she says. “Getting the meeting with the right person is crucial. If you have a meeting down the chain, it can be a waste of time.

“Also you may not get paid when you expect it, until you build up a reputation and products don’t sit in a warehouse. We have to send products without any payments. We’ve never had a bad debt, but I would advise [companies] not to jump in with a distributor unless they are financially sound.”

Jeremy Moon, CEO of Icebreaker, adds a product must be communicated in different ways. For example, despite both countries’ love of the outdoors, building the Icebreaker brand required a different marketing angle in Australian.

“New Zealand is about mountains and lakes and Australia is about beaches and most people don’t wear outdoor brands on the beach. So, the focus has extended to the travel market with our lightweight merino lifestyle collection, which is perfect for the Australian climate.

“It was challenging building an outdoor adventure brand in Australia,” he says, “because the majority of active Australian brands are surf brands.”

Stuart Norris, co-owner of Magic Memories tourism photography business, is now based in Queensland, which he says is different from Sydney and different again from Melbourne. Norris believes each state has its own rules and you learn those by being on the ground.

“There’s a localised vocabulary in each part of Australia and its own way of doing business,” he says. “ I join the local networks, play golf with the right people and I also celebrate the Kiwi network. There are a lot of world class business people in Australia who also happen to be Kiwi.”

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In part five, Katz asks whether exporters should invest in having staff on the ground in Australia.

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Bella Katz is an Australia-based brand and marketing consultant and advises New Zealand companies exporting to Australia. She is also a New Zealand expat, calling Australia home for over a decade.

- Unlimited

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