Asia Business Conference 2004

The Asia Business Conference 2004 was held at HBS on February 13-14th, 2004, with the theme “Globalization: the Modern Silk Road?” With more than ten years of history behind it, the Asia Business Conference is the oldest and largest Asian MBA conference in North America. This annual conference is jointly organized by Harvard Business School’s Asia Business Club, Harvard Law School’s Harvard Asia Law Society, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government’s East Asian Caucus.

The two-day conference kicked off with Professor Warren McFarlan of HBS describing the globalization initiative being pursued by HBS, which includes plans to open offices in Hong Kong, Japan and India by the end of 2004.

Three keynote speeches were given by His Excellency Ong Keng Yong (ASEAN Secretary General), Shan Li (CEO of Bank of China International), and Peter Weedfald (Senior Vice President of Strategic Marketing of Samsung Electronics America, Inc.). His Excellency Ong Keng Yong provided his perspective on ASEAN’s progress in promoting free trade within ASEAN and between ASEAN and the rest of the world. Mr. Li discussed the development of China’s burgeoning financial industry, and Peter Weedfald presented an overview of Samsung’s hyper-fast global marketing strategy of building emotional capital, supply chain management, and expanding the lines of products and services.

The list of keynotes concluded with a lunchtime speech by Mr. Ying Wu, CEO of UTStarcom, who discussed the rapid growth of the mobile/wireless market in China. The conference featured a total of twelve panels, grouped in four perspectives – Macroeconomic, Industry, Corporate, and Institutional. Certain panels, such as the Impact and Future of Broadband Growth in Asia, Venture Business and Start-up Companies in Asia, and Multinational Corporate Investment in Asia, packed the Hawes classrooms to the brim with attendees from HBS, HLS, KSG, and other Graduate Schools in Boston.

In addition to the on-campus events, there were off-campus social events including a reception at the Fogg Art Museum and the elegant Valentine’s Ball. Both events proved successful with lively interaction amongst guest speakers, conference attendees and organizers.

There were a number of common themes underlying the different speeches and panel discussions. One theme focused on the unique characteristics of managing a business in Asia, and the importance of having local Asian offices for the successful management of business in that region. In the view of many panelists, the recipe for success was very simple – to invest in human capital.

China’s competitive position in Asia was another topic of focused discussion. In his opening remarks on the second day, Mr. Paul Di Paola, Director of Bain & Company and Head of the firm’s China office, emphasized China’s growth potential. When the panelists discussed multinational corporations’ investment opportunities in Asia, the question of how to manage the Chinese operation was a hot topic. While some view China as a threat, much is to be said for the country’s import potential and ASEAN countries are finding that China is accounting for a growing percentage of their exports. With its growing 1.2 billion population, China’s markets attract worldwide attention, but its obscure legal system and tightly networked political society are perceived as risky by multinational corporations. It appears that successful corporations are those capable of balancing risks and returns in China.

So what was the answer to the question, “Globalization: the Modern Silk Road?” Indeed, it is a silk road of sorts, and the issues raised at the conference have become recurring themes in the business world.

Corporations have faced these issues when they encountered new markets in the past. Asia must embrace globalization and not fear the challenges it brings, for opportunities abound – this is just like a modern silk road where different cultures meet to explore new opportunities. At the end, everyone who attended the Asia Business Conference had an interesting and enlightening time during the discussion which was rightly described by an impressed keynote speaker as a “maverick exchange of ideas”.