Beca Asia Emeritus Chairman Chuan Seng Lee presided over a business which grew to 40 times its original size in 25 years. In that time, the Msian-born Kiwi learnt many things about developing a NZ company in the ASEAN region


15 July 2013



Beca Asia Emeritus Chairman Chuan Seng Lee presided over a business which grew to 40 times its original size in 25 years. In that time, the Malaysian-born Kiwi learnt many things about developing a New Zealand company in the ASEAN region. He says New Zealanders relate well with Asia, but need to have passion and perseverance to survive. It can be hard to convince a potential client of the value of your product or service, so you need the desire for success and a gutsy determination to keep going if you encounter slow initial progress. Lee says many ASEAN companies have been burnt by foreign companies who talked them into deals, then made ungraciously swift exits when the going got tough. “There are foreign firms that bail and leave everybody in the lurch. (That’s why) they will be cautious.”He says a positive, accommodating attitude is essential.

“Things will be different here and you must do things to suit the local environment, not to suit you.”

Lee is also the Singapore-based chair of the NZTE Beachheads Advisory Board for South-East Asia. He helps businesses new to the region by imparting market insights built up over almost 25 years with the New Zealand-based professional engineering firm.

Beca started expanding overseas in the 1960s and has grown to more than 3000 employees in New Zealand, Australia and Asia. It designs a broad range of projects including high rise buildings, roads, bridges, hotels, tunnels, and waste systems across the region.

One of Lee’s most hard-earned pearls of advice is to work alongside would-be local competitors. When you land fresh from New Zealand, you may have the expertise to establish a solid business, but the locals will have the decades of goodwill which is so essential in Asian business. Rather than facing off, consider working together. You can deliver the high-end, value-add expertise and your local collaborator can carry out the bulk of the work. In an engineering scenario, that equates to a company such as Beca utilising its design expertise to nut out a solution for the client, and the local company preparing the hundreds of drawings to bring it to life.

He says many New Zealand companies expect to fill the same niche offshore as they do domestically. But in a much bigger market, your shortcomings will not be as easily forgiven. Lee suggests business leaders realistically assess what differentiates their business and proactively seek work which plays to the company’s strengths.

Look at your menu of offerings and ask ‘What am I really good at?’ and enter the market with that in mind.

When he first started knocking on doors for Beca Asia, potential clients would explain they had the best firms in Europe and the United States lined up. Why, they asked, should they consider a comparatively small and less-experienced company from New Zealand?

Lee’s strategy was to accentuate Beca’s differentiators, and appeal to the all-important bottom line. He would say: “But would you like a green building that can save you $1-$2 million a year which we can design for you?”

Lee says long-term thinking is essential in ASEAN. Reiterating his point about the reputation of swift-exit foreign firms, he says clients need to know you will be there to see the current project through, to provide after-sales service and support, and to build a trusting and mutually-beneficial relationship for the future.

“We have found this very, very important in ASEAN.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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