Small Potatoes? No Way

About 10 days after returning from last month’s TPM Asia Conference in Shenzhen, I turned around and headed back to Asia, this time to join two trade missions with Oregon companies to Hong Kong, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Macau and finishing up back in Hong Kong.

The two trade groups could hardly have been more different, the first being green-tech/clean-tech Oregon companies presenting their products and services at a trade show in Hong Kong. The second group was a combination of the Washington and Oregon departments of agriculture and their potato commissions.

The purpose was to explore potential new markets in Southeast Asia and to present Oregon- and Washington-grown potatoes to retail and food and beverage buyers in the region. The common link was the strong interest to increase exports. My role was to be the representative of the Port of Portland and provide logistics and supply chain information and assistance to the mission participants: How does the process work? How can it be managed more efficiently and cost-effectively? We also arranged a tour of the Port of Singapore for the mission delegates (Thanks, PSA!).

Although the details of such a trip are extremely interesting and the education is a two-way street — I learned a great deal about green-tech businesses and potatoes, both much more interesting, nuanced and complex than I had imagined — paying attention to what is going on in this part of the world is always a major priority when I travel there.

Following TPM Asia in early October, when it was more or less confirmed that the trans-Pacific peak shipping season again fizzled out quickly, I wondered what I’d see of the business climate in the four cities I visited. It won’t come as a surprise to many of you that, at least on a local level, business appears vibrant and active. Admittedly, much of what follows is anecdotal and comes from my personal conversations and observations, but it seems business, in general, in Southeast Asia is chugging along nicely. Here’s what I saw and heard over the three weeks:

Care of the environment has pretty much been a rich-world phenomenon over the past couple of decades. Our economies are mature and sophisticated, and, frankly, we can afford to spend the money. Any tourist can notice the difference in the care taken of old buildings in the West compared with the often run-down condition in poorer countries.

Cleanliness in the cities is another informal marker: Clean streets mean there are resources available to keep them that way. The streets from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Min City were as clean as any place in America. Similarly, the EcoExpo Asia Trade fair in Hong Kong was well-attended with vendors from all over the world, not just the rich world, and visits to our group’s booths were equally represented by a wide range of companies and countries.

Asian governments and countries are interested and are spending money to clean up and maintain clean environments. America will want to take care not to slip behind in yet another sector.

What about consumers and food? Potatoes are a pretty basic food item produced virtually everywhere on earth. Why would two Northwest states take the time and effort to come all this way when the countries we visited grow their own, and their giant neighbor, China, is a major producer. The answer lies with the clearly rising economic status and expanding tastes of consumers in Southeast Asia. More income means moving up the chain of quality (real and perceived) for all sorts of goods, even the humble potato, which comes in an amazing assortment of varieties.

Visits to several locations of local and Western wholesale and retail markets were all the proof I needed that U.S. food products have strong growth potential in all of the places we visited.

One concluding note about the economy in Southeast Asia and one based solely on my personal observation: I visited the Marina Bay Sands Casino in Singapore and the Venetian Hotel in Macau. While Las Vegas has been struggling for several years, the casinos here were packed. Almost everyone (well more than 90 percent of the people I saw) was either local or from neighboring countries, but clearly Asian, rather than Western.

The minimum bet at any blackjack table in Singapore was S$25 (about US$20) and 300 pataca (about US$38) in Macau. The tables were full. The restaurants were full. The grocery stores were full. Business is booming in a way we haven’t seen in America for almost half a decade. We’d best get moving.

Barry Horowitz is the principal of CMS Consulting Services. Contact him at 503-208-2232, or at barryh@cms-cs.com.

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