Asia Business Conference 2003

For two days over this past Valentine’s Day weekend, students and speakers from around the globe attended the 2003 Asia Business Conference, which featured a stellar roster of speakers, a cocktail party at the Fogg Art Museum, a career fair, and culminated in a Valentine’s Day Dinner, Ball and Casino Night at the Charles Hotel. Love was in the air as more than 750 students and professionals from across the nation descended upon the HBS campus to attend three keynote speaker presentations, three roundtable discussions, and twelve panels focused on the financial, political, economic and social reinvention of Asia within the tumultuous global context.

Opening remarks by Mr. Allen Merrill, Managing Director and Head of Bain & Company’s Asia Financial Institutions Practice, highlighted four key dynamics in Asia, setting the stage for the rest of discussions over the 2-day conference. Merrill reiterated the emerging importance of China, especially in the context of China’s entrance into the WTO, how its membership is likely to underpin continuing regional fragmentation, the continued persistence of problem credit even as corporate governance improves at a slow pace, and lastly, the likelihood of uneven prosperity and well being to prevail in Asia.

The changing landscape of China’s technology industry was a frequent topic among speakers and attendees, including Dr. Soon-Hoon Bae, Former Minister of Information & Communication for South Korea and Former Chairman and CEO of Daewoo Electronics and Ms. Mary Ma, the CFO of Legend Holdings (China’s leading PC company) who was recently ranked #5 on Fortune’s list of Top 50 Most Powerful Women in global business. Ma emphasized the changes occurring in China’s technology landscape and the need to return to the basics of market-driven, value-added services, echoing the direction of the U.S.’s technology market. Partnerships such as last year’s highly touted $200mm joint venture between Legend and AOL have largely been put on the back burner in order to focus on services with immediate demand, such as SMS. One difference between China and the U.S., according to Ma, is that IT spending in China will continue to grow at a 20%-30% clip over the next few years, given the fact that IT services currently only account for 6% of total spending, versus 40% in the U.S. Given this potential growth, China’s high-technology companies will have to continue to innovate in order to stay ahead of its multinational competitors, a sentiment echoed by a number of speakers.

Ma’s thoughts were echoed during some of the high-tech roundtable discussions, which provided a great forum for several C-level executives from Japan and China to give their perspectives on how Asian technology companies have actually grown rather than suffered through the global technology downturn. While the demand within the U.S. IT market has declined, more and more demand has come from the increased trends of outsourcing and desire for cheap labor. Additionally, the high growth of the service sector in markets such as China was a heavily debated topic as well. In the midst of services and overall outsourcing growth, speakers indicated that there still is a scarcity of talented leaders and this certainly presents an opportunity for HBS MBAs who are interested in working in the region.

“This year’s conference focused on the challenges and the opportunities that confront Asian economies and businesses in crisis that are in need of foreign investment and trade flows to recover from the global downturn.

This crisis could also be the catalyst that forces Asian economies to reinvent themselves to be more competitive in the new global environment,” said Erik Lin (MBA ’03), Asia Business Conference Co-Chair. ” I think that we were able to explore just how the choices being made now by business and government leaders in Asia will determine the ability of Asian economies to compete in this new environment, and how quickly the Asian region as a whole will recover as the global economic climate improves.”

Other topics covered over the course of the conference include the evolution of the media industry in Asia, with speakers such as Mr. Alexander P. Brown, CEO of CNBC Asia Pacific and Ms. Yifei Li (also one of Fortune’s Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Global Business), Managing Director of MTV Networks China, Chief Representative of Viacom Beijing and Shanghai. Brown commented on the forecasted 45% CNBC subscriber growth from 2002 to 2010 for Asia-Pacific, which will mainly be driven by growth in the key markets of China and India. Brown also asserted that content will be the driver of distribution, and more specifically, localized content will be critical for growing advertising share.

Entrepreneurs such as Mr. Hiroshi Mikitani (MBA 1993), named one of the “Top Entrepreneurs of the Year” by BusinessWeek, also spoke of opportunities in the online retail sector. The Rakuten Cybermall, which Mikitani launched in 1997, has become one of the most recognized cybermalls in Japan, with 8,000 retailers, an average of 18 million daily visits and a monthly turnover of about $64 million. Mikitani forecasts a tenfold increase in the total goods and services his cybermall handles to nearly $8 billion annually by 2005.

The conference included many other panels on such wide-ranging topics as Venture Capital, Corporate Governance, Biotechnology and Corruption in Asia.

In addition to the daytime activities of keynotes, panels, and executive roundtables, the Conference also provided numerous opportunities for informal networking among the speakers and attendees in a social setting. The cocktail reception at the Fogg Art Museum featured a string quartet to provide an intimate setting for the speakers and invited participants to interact, and the sold-out Valentine’s Ball at the Charles Hotel allowed speakers and attendees to try their luck at Casino Night or dance the night away with free flowing wine and desserts.

The Asia Business Conference is jointly sponsored by the Asia Business Club of HBS, Asia Law Society of the Harvard Law School, and East Asian Caucus of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the Asia Business Conference and is the largest Asian business conference in North America, with over 100 student volunteers from the three schools.