Doing business in the Far East is all about doing business with equals, Pádraig Hoare is told by a man known as Mr Asia, who says it will take time and effort to cement relationships
He was asked to assist a Japanese executive working in Ireland with the language barrier. Thirty years later, Cork native Martin Murray is known as Mr Asia for his expertise in business on that continent.
The executive director and co-founder of Ireland’s only Asian think-tank, Asia Matters has become one of the foremost authorities for Irish business looking to expand in the likes of China, Japan, Indonesia and The Philippines.
A non-profit and apolitical membership institute, Asia Matters works in close partnership with leading corporates and government stakeholders. Chairman of Asia Matters is Alan Dukes, former finance minister.
Mr Murray said: “I was asked by Mitsui in Ireland to assist a man named Takeshi Yakeda, and I agreed. Getting to know Yakeda San was unexpectedly wonderful. He was a genius in his field yet was so humble and respectful. I never met a man so capable and so modest. We became firm friends and I became transfixed by the dignity of the Japanese people.”
The Bishopstown native began to immerse himself in Asian culture, including learning Asian philosophy from legendary karate sensei Greg Manning in Mayfield, Co Cork, as well as Asian cultural expert Fr Joe Rooney.
His fascination with Asian culture eventually permeated his personal life — he married a Japanese woman and jokes that his family is a “Little Japan in Ireland”.
The potential for Irish business in lands like China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Singapore and The Philippines is enormous, according to Mr Murray. With global business instability due to Brexit and the Trump administration, many executives in Asia are very worried about risk management in global expansion, particularly in the West which means Ireland can be a safe haven for investment, he said.
It will take time and effort to cement relationships but the shared cultural nuances can work to Ireland’s advantage, he said.
“This is not just about Ireland selling to Asia. This is about the broader European-Asian partnership. You need to invest in China, you need to put in time, go out there, spend resources and most importantly find a good partner on the ground. You get back what you put in. It takes time and effort.
“Sometimes talking to Asians, there is a perception that a colonial mindset remains, with Westerners engaged in the “let us educate you” mode. There are many people in Asia light years beyond us in relation to e-commerce and IT.
“You need policymakers, universities and all stakeholders to not look to the past and say “this is the way we have always done it”. You need people who are dynamic and forward-looking and action-orientated. We can learn from each other.
“Irish people are halfway between American and Asian. We have individualism but we also have the group collective. The philosophy of Asia Matters is three words — respect among equals. That should be the beginning of any relationship.”
Trade between Ireland and China is now worth about €16bn, he said and that means huge opportunities.
Irish food and drink exports to China have increased sixfold in the last six years. China has become the third largest market for Irish food and beverages, and the second for Irish dairy and pork products.
Yet problems remain that need action, he said. There is still a lack of awareness of Ireland in Asia, while other European countries are ahead of the curve.
“We have one Bord Bia person in Shanghai and one in Singapore. We’re competing against Denmark who have 50 to 100. That’s just not credible. IDA, Enterprise Ireland, Bord Bia, Tourism Ireland. They are doing a very good job and are very ambitious with their targets, looking to double trade with Asia in just a few years. But to do that, they need resources.
“When FÁS went, we really threw the baby out with the bath water. We used to have engineering graduates sent to Japan, who worked in the best companies in the world. They learned team spirit, corporate culture. This gave us inside ambassadors in Japanese countries. Many countries learned about Ireland through these graduates for the first time, including pharmaceutical company Takeda. Greg Timmons from Dublin became CEO in Ireland. It was so successful, they opened a second Dublin plant. We’re missing that now,” he said.
An embassy in Manila, an Irish version of the UK cultural institution British Council, and boosting our financial services presence in Asia, is critical, he said.
“I’d encourage financial services in Beijing, Tokyo and Manila. An embassy in Manila is crucial. We need more staff on the ground in China in relation to food, banking, infrastructure. If we want Ireland to win these contracts, we need people there. Ireland always works better when all agencies are working together in one building. It is a resource issue but it would be marvellous to have an Irish version of the British Council, under a Brand Ireland.