The Paper Chaise: More APBO Homework than Ever

March 27, 2011
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Andrew Wylegala is the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Serivce’s Senior Commercial Officer in Hong Kong.

It is chilly in LA this March–especially for Arizona Wildcats–but preparations for the annual Asia Pacific Business Outlook Conference, (APBOC), have heated up.    The 24th session gets under way in 24 hours, and–for the second year running–is sold-out!   Many participants were drawn by keynoter Gary Locke, the former governor of Washington, the current Secretary of Commerce, and the nominee to become the US ambassador to China.  Many are looking forward to hearing experts on a range of export and business opportunities and challenges in 60 sessions assembled by the organizers from USC’s Marshall School over the compact two-day program.

But what sets this conference apart from others focused on Asia is the part I am in.  That is the portion in which the company reps at APBOC have a rapid-fire succession of private counseling sessions with Senior Commercial Officers working in 13 of the leading markets across Asia Pacific.  This year, the interest in these meetings is hotter than ever.  These one-on-ones allow companies to sit down with the Asia-based officers to tackle their specific business issues and lay out plans of action for these markets, often involving future client services which the Commercial Service teams will provide, in-country.  In my case, I am representing Hong Kong, and I will be backed up by an “executive partner,” a private sector consultant with 30 years helping foreign firms trade and invest, as well as by my colleagues on the domestic side of the Commercial Service’s global network, and a couple of counterparts from the Hong Kong government.

Since the topics addressed in the mere 15-20 minutes allowed for these sessions cover the gamut of industries and issues, it is not possible for the Commercial Officers to go into the meetings cold.  Fortunately, we are armed with preparatory notes for each company — a combination of the US firm’s thumbnail and questions, and corresponding responses and data assembled back overseas.  But even digesting these condensed “cheat sheets” is a challenge.  At last year’s APBOC I had only about 20 clients to counsel.  I did my boning up on the long-flight over, the paperwork manageable even on the flip-down seat tray.  No such luck for 2011.  Like my SCO colleagues from the other markets, Hong Kong has drawn about 36 appointments, meaning about four talk-packed hours of interaction for both of the two conference days.

But here’s the dirty little secret:  as versatile and quick study-adept as my fellow SCOs and I come to be, the real value add comes from the individuals preparing our “cram sheets,” our locally-engaged staff overseas.  These foreign nationals are our eyes, ears and expertise.  They get to know the products, players and problems in their industry sectors, often over decades of work for the Commercial Service in our embassy and consulate locations.  Indirectly, then, it is these folks who our business clients seek out at APBOC and throughout the year.  Of course, the work of the local specialists, alone, cannot provide the U.S. exporter with a total solution.  That takes our entire CS organization: the U.S. Export Assistance Center specialists placed in a 100 offices across the U.S., those locally-engaged staff from the embassies, and us jack-of-all trade Senior Commercial Officers.