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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Forum gives Island business people a lift

 •  ADB demonstration scaled back from 5,000 people to 1,500
 •  Advertiser special: ADB in Hawai'i — global issues, local impact

By Glenn Scott
Advertiser Staff Writer

For more than 500 Hawai'i business people, yesterday was a day to think big at the Asian Development Bank's annual meeting in Honolulu.

Hawaiian Business Forum speaker Peter Sullivan, left, shared a moment with members of the audience during a break in a presentation entitled Keys to Expanding Business with Asia, at the Asian Development Bank's annual meeting yesterday at the Hawaii Convention Center. Seiji Naya looks on in the background.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Forget meager efforts to expand incrementally on O'ahu. The message during an all-day Hawaii Business Forum was that businesses here are often in the fortunate position to seek opportunities from South Korea to China to Singapore.

The forum, an unprecedented local activity at the bank's annual meeting, was meant to plant just that encouraging seed during the five days of seminars, meetings and receptions at the Hawaii Convention Center.

The event seemed to do just that, clearly energizing the crowd of Island business people who lingered into the evening during a rousing reception that evolved into a ukelele-led pep rally with local songs.

The seminar offered a lineup of speakers who offered a balance of benefits and troubles in dealing with the rigorous requirements of doing business with the bank. But generally, participants seemed to carry out encouraging themes.

"It's been very stimulating," said Shirleyanne Chew, business development director for Verizon Avenue, a subsidiary of Verizon. "This is allowing local business people to think broader about larger business opportunities."

Indeed, suddenly the characteristics of Hawai'i's ethnically diverse business scene seemed more like empowering traits than parochial concerns. Consider, for instance, what J. Gregory Bender, chief executive officer of ADI Technologies Corp. said about the reasons his $70 million-a-year company opened a Honolulu office as it seeks to open operations in at least three Asian countries over the next two years.

"We do believe Hawai'i is the gateway," Bender said. "I know it's an overused term, but I believe it deeply."

In fact, he said the Islands are the only spots that marry Asian culture with American business know-how.

Forum participants had no shortage of advice yesterday, for sure.

Speaker Tom Plate, a Los Angeles-based syndicated columnist, entertained the group with an after-lunch speech that stressed the primacy of politics over economics in analyzing where to invest.

Plate, calling Hawai'i "the last gas station on the way to Asia," said Island business people hold an advantage of location, culture and expertise in Asian-centered intellectual activity over all others in the United States. But he also warned that, to be successful, Hawaiian interests need to overcome the impression that folks here are just too easygoing.

"All things considered," he said, "what you don't have here, if I may say it, is an international competitive attitude."

Plate maintained, though, that bringing the Asian Development Bank meeting to Honolulu was a stroke of genius, saying that it will put the city on the public agenda for other business gatherings.

Peter Sullivan, a former bank vice president who now is chairman of Lombard Investments Inc., agreed with Plate's assessment about Asia. "If you don't have a stable environment and at least a predictable environment," he said, "it's not a place to invest long-term."

For every word of caution, though, came other bits of practical advice.

Puongpun Sananikone, president of Honolulu-based Pacific Management Resources, said his company has been involved in two dozen bank projects, working generally with partners from local countries, whether China, Fiji, Indonesia or his native Laos.

He challenged listeners to do extensive research about bank projects and to make contacts in Asian countries to build credibility. He characterized ADB-backed projects as difficult but important as a means for learning the business environment in Asia.

"The ADB is not a gravy train," he said. "But for those prepared to work your way up the learning curve. . . I think it's an excellent place to do business."

The Hawai'i seminar was distinctive in several ways. It was the first of its kind at an ADB meeting, which traditionally stages events more geared to the bank's immediate programming.

But Bob Fishman, executive director of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, one of the key state agencies sponsoring the meeting, said organizers here sought more local activity in exchange for putting on the meeting.

The introduction did allow local business people the unusual chance to rub elbows, as Fishman noted, with an array of high-powered bankers, business people and delegates from throughout Asia.

Not only that, the Hawai'i contingent had added a splash of color, increasing the percentage of aloha shirts and tropical outfits to an event otherwise tilting dangerously toward gray business attire.

As for gleaning tips about Asian business styles, business people needed only to hang out in the corridors of the convention center to meet people such as Farzam Kamalabadi, a U.S.-educated economic advisor to municipal governments in China.

Kamalabadi, whose office is in Shanghai, says he has visited more than 500 Chinese cities in 33 provinces in his capacity helping local governments to put together proposals for Asian Development Bank financing.

"If you have an angle that is very attractive," he said, "the bank staff will help you with the process."

Whether the Hawai'i forum yields immediate successes remains to be seen, but Mike Murphy, an export assistance officer for the U.S. Department of Commerce, said he knows already of three local businesses submitting proposals to the bank.

"The opportunity is there," he said. "What we have to do now is to follow up."