It is perhaps inevitable that doing business in Asia is often equated with doing business in China. But as an economy, ASEAN – Association of Southeast Asian Nations – is predicted by 2030 to eclipse Japan's and be the world's fourth largest 'single market' after the EU, US and China.
To all commercial intents and purposes, ASEAN is a collective of potential business partners, working together to try to ease the flow of trade among each participant country. It also has some already established major markets on its doorstep and, in Singapore, has one of the world's key financial centres at its heart.
Chris Bishop, international business development director of Synetics, has made 22 trips to the region in the past couple of years. He is well-qualified to speak of the importance of 'being there'.
In 2015, his firm won a deal to design and deliver an integrated security management solution for the new Terminal 3 at Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. In February 2016 the firm secured another major aviation contract within the ASEAN region.
For Bishop then, there is no substitute for turning up and being able to talk face to face. The roots of success, he feels, are based simply on whether a business can develop the right relationships. "It's not going to be a handshake and that is it. You have to spend the time building the relationships," he states.
There has to be a product too and the UK has something special to offer here, Bishop feels. "UK plc as a brand is well-recognised and respected for high quality and innovation – and that's what won us through for the Soekarno-Hatta airport deal against Taiwanese, Korean and Chinese companies," he comments.
It is clear that the combination of a quality product and being prepared to meet the customer and develop a solid relationship wins deals in ASEAN. But Bishop warns that the relationship side, allied to the relatively slow pace of administration across the region, may elicit questions back home as to why a deal is taking so long.
"You really have to make sure you are managing upwards in your organisation," he says. "Communication with all levels of senior management is crucial in order for them to understand that although you are making multiple trips, you are also making progress. Setting these expectations upfront is important for business planning purposes."
As a country that has the kind of software engineering and scientific talent that many others could only dream of, Vietnam has a lot going for it. With 93 per cent of graduates studying sciences, compared to just 11.8 per cent in the UK, it is way ahead of the pack in some respects, says Paul Smith, executive chairman of Harvey Nash Outsourcing.
Smith recognised this fact early on and now runs one of the most advanced software development centres in the country or anywhere else for that matter. There is, he notes, a pleasing willingness among these young graduates to speak up when they find an issue, often offering better ideas. This is an attitude he says he rarely finds in other parts of Asia and is one which demonstrably works for his business model.
Smith is another firm advocate of frequently visiting a chosen location and building genuine relationships in order to progress.
As an early mover in Vietnam, he recalls how he started working with some junior government administrators. Where others may have been dismissive of their ranking, he was openly grateful for their assistance. Fast forward 10 years and Smith is still dealing with these same people, many as good friends now. But all have risen up the ranks, some having reached ministerial level. Respect for peers, he notes, is at the heart of Asian culture. It's also good for business.