Rule One: Learn the culture
That drive to understand is still far too rare among Americans who want to do business in Asia, says Peter Bartholomew '67. He has been living in South Korea ever since he received his degree from Hamilton. While he started out retraining teachers as part of a Peace Corps project, he has long since graduated to the role of industrialist. Bartholomew helped design South Korea's new shipyards and managed the transfer of shipbuilding technology from an international engineering firm to Korea's shipbuilders as the nation established those big shipyards in the 1970s and early '80s. For the past 25 years he has been running his own company, IRC Ltd., which builds floating oil rigs weighing as much as 400,000 tons. He's also the head of the Royal Asiatic Society-Korea Branch, and a director on the board of the Korean National Trust. In short, he knows a thing or two about doing business in Asia — and he says Americans there often don't fare well.
"Generally speaking, they don't do any homework," Bartholomew says. Americans typically assume that foreigners will react to a set of business conditions the same way their countrymen would. He summarizes the mind-set this way: "'Business is business; it doesn't matter where you go.' The number of times I've heard that is legion."
Too often, he says, Americans don't have the skills they need to work in an international environment. They haven't learned the local ways of relating to people, making decisions or evaluating business opportunities. With the exception of big multinational firms, many U.S. companies don't even try to do business in Asia because it's just too much trouble. From his work consulting to foreign firms that do want to enter the market, Bartholomew has firsthand knowledge of companies that have made missteps because they didn't know the territory. He's seen a firm try to go outside government channels to determine where to locate a plant, had clients act overly friendly to the point of disrespect in a business meeting, and even had people show up in January in Korea's North Asian climate dressed for the tropics.
With so few Asia-ready Americans, U.S. companies often must turn to third-country nationals to run their operations. "How the system works here, how people think, what their priorities are, what their criteria and objectives are in doing business — they've got to understand that," Bartholomew says of Americans trying to enter the market.