The Man Who Has Worked in 20 Countries

Our latest guest blog is from Fred Ng, a former restructuring colleague of Wyn River's founder, Nigel Davies. Fred was recently interviewed for an interim executive firm.

 

Fred Ng is a chartered accountant with a Henley MBA and a founding member of the Institute for Turnaround. He is currently a non-executive director of a company awaiting IPO in London, and an advisor to various start-up companies. He is a frequent speaker and commentator on turnaround, and China-related business matters. He is also a council member with Gerson Lehrman Group business experts.

Fred grew up in Hong Kong as a colonial child. He describes coming to England to be schooled in his teens like "being launched into a second culture". He comments:

"At the time it was very strange moving to another continent to be educated; everything was new and I quickly had to learn and adapt to act like a local. But I feel the whole experience has made me naturally bi-cultural, and it provided a firm foundation for my career."

His career as a business restructuring and turnaround expert has seen him work and drive business transformation projects across more than 20 countries, including the UK, Italy, Singapore, China, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Turkey.

Here we ask Fred his views on working effectively across different continents, companies and cultures, and how to drive through performance and business transformation.

Q - What training would someone require if they were looking for a cross-cultural career?

A - Experience is key. For me, the experience I gained in a training job with Ernst & Young immediately after graduating was just the kick-start that my career needed. I was also fortunate to be heavily involved in the Heron restructuring. From an early stage I knew I wanted to follow a career in business turnaround. I then went on to work across a number of multi-national organisations, and - on each occasion - I always tried to seek opportunities for restructuring or turnaround work.

Q - What character traits do you need to drive business performance and transformation? How do you apply this to different companies and cultures?

A - You need to have a passion for getting things changed and for ensuring the proper process is followed through. I'd also argue that most people that follow this type of career are naturally curious, and relish a challenge. And they need to feel comfortable being 'intellectually stretched'. These are useful skills to have and thrive in a modern “disruptive” economy.

Q - How do you get things achieved?

A - At the end of the day, it's about good stakeholder management. You need to gain the trust and confidence of the people you are working with - as quickly as possible. You will be seen as the 'voice of reason'. The 'stakeholders' need to feel reassured that they are in the best hands, so that you can build a plan to move forward with.

Q - How easy is it to adapt from one company and culture to another? How do you ensure the work is done?

A - The principles are the same if you are working in the UK or Uzbekistan. But, as I did when I was a young boy, you need to quickly learn and adapt to the environment you are in and to 'act like a local'. You need to listen and respect the local way of doing things.

Q - What has been your most exciting/interesting project to date and why?

A - There is no doubt working as CFO/CRO at Ferretti, a large Italian luxury yacht builder with sales of €500m, provided the greatest challenge and the greatest satisfaction. I was brought in to manage the complex restructuring and acquisition by a large Chinese group. The stakeholders brought me in because they needed someone with the inter-cultural and restructuring skill sets.

Fred is currently working with a number of Chinese investors, assisting in the post-acquisition management, integration and restructuring of the businesses. Which country he chooses to next conquer is anyone's guess...

A story about Rice and Senegal on World Food Day

Sunday 16 October is World Food Day.

To celebrate the efforts and achievements of farmers, suppliers, processors, distributors and retailers (from field to fork) as well as to highlight the ongoing challenges to meet demand, access and affordability, raise nutition content and reduce waste, we are pleased to bring you a guest blog from Victoria Crandall, who runs a research consultancy focusing on Sub-Saharan Africa's agriculture and soft commodites.

Here Victoria gives her personal story about a recent visit to Senegal, West Africa, discussing local food habits, the legacy and economics of imported food against home-grown, and the associated food security risks across much of the region.  

 

"During a visit to Dakar, I was on a mission to eat one last tchep before dashing off to the airport. Thieboudienne, or tchep as it is commonly called, is the Senegalese national dish: a simple pairing of fish, rice, and vegetables.

I spotted a tiny hole-in-the wall where I ordered tchep rouge, called red for the tomato paste flavored rice.

I happily tucked into the dish between sips of spicy ginger juice. A fiery and tangy red sauce gave the dish an irresistible bite. But, as I fell into a refined carbohydrate-induced stupor, I regretted polishing off the compact mound of starchy rice. I staggered out of the restaurant, kicking myself for not accepting the complementary mint tea, which would have revived me for the airport.

Senegal is a glutton of the starchy grain

Like many West African dishes, the Senegalese tchep is an excuse to eat copious amounts of rice. Although West Africans are large rice consumers, Senegal is truly a glutton of the grain, with the region’s highest per capita consumption rate of an estimated 90 kg. The starchy grain is filling, relatively inexpensive and easy to prepare, making it a staple food of urban Senegalese.

Rice is the perfect sauce delivery vehicle and provider of calories for the majority of the population who cannot afford costly animal protein. The centrality of rice in the Senegalese diet is apparent in its most famous dishes – tchep, poulet yassa, and mafé – which all consist of a small portion of chicken or fish accompanied by large amounts of white rice. These dishes are renowned for their standout sauces, using local ingredients for truly unique flavors.

Watch out rice traders: Senegalese prefer broken rice

The white rice in Senegal is particular. The grain is finely broken, resembling couscous. According to an almost apocryphal story, the French introduced broken rice (riz brisé) to the Senegalese during the colonial period. French merchants struggled to sell large stocks of Vietnamese rice because the grains had been broken during the milling process. Considered to be of poor quality, the small grain rice was not even fit for human consumption, and was sold as animal feed.

But, enterprising French traders dumped the stocks in Senegal where it found a market due to its low cost. Over time, broken rice gained the favor of the local population. Rice traders that are new to the region struggle to sell long-grain white rice; the grain needs to have a large percentage of “brokens” or it will sit in the warehouse, untouched. Local wholesalers won’t buy it. Cautionary tales abound of clueless traders, stuck with cargos of gleaming polished long-grained rice since they were ignorant of local consumer preferences.

Continue reading A story about Rice and Senegal on World Food Day

Business Culture in Kazakhstan

Business Culture in Kazakhstan

This guest blog is from Ben Godwin, the founder of innovative trading/exporting platform Export Tree, which provides access to customers and local representatives in the markets of Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. You can read the original post and others at the Export Tree Blog. Ben originally started working in Kazakhstan in 2009 when he formed Capital Group, covering corporate training and consultancy services to private and public entities in sectors such as mining, oil and gas and finance. Ben Godwin is Wyn River's associate in Kazakhstan supporting our clients with local and regional contacts to facilitate trade and investment activity.

Every market has its own business culture. Here are ten tips to start you off in Kazakhstan based on our seven years experience in the field. 

1. Confirm meetings on the day: The Kazakhstan work day can be somewhat chaotic. So, no matter how much confirmation you receive ahead of time always confirm your meeting on the day. This will save embarrassment all round. 

2. Use a local representative: Your local representative can liaise with partners to organise meetings, give you good insight and advise on the questions you should be asking. Most importantly, however, they can follow up once you have returned home. Use the Export Tree database to find a local partner in your sector or use our consultancy services to plan your entry. 

3. Be formal: Kazakhstanis tend to wear expensive suits, have the latest iPhone and be keen on trading fancy business cards. Often meetings are run in large conference rooms by a senior figure surrounded by people that never say anything. Be prepared to meet this level of formality in order to win the respect of your partner. 

4. Don’t confuse friendliness with familiarity: In a cringeworthy scene one of our associates witnessed a British visitor try to take a selfie with a government official after a meeting. While Kazakhstanis tend to be very friendly it is important to remember that they value a respectful distance. 

5. All meetings are positive: Business meetings in Kazakhstan are often more like diplomatic affairs where ‘cooperation’ is discussed at length and memorandums - non-binding - are signed. While this all sounds positive don’t let it distract you from asking the questions you need answers to

6. Start with a meeting at their premises: While the international community is comfortable with the practice of business lunches and dinners in Kazakhstan this comes at a later stage in negotiations in Kazakhstan. Usually some trust has to be built first.

7. Plans change rapidly: When you are given information on plans for an upcoming project expect them to change - or not happen at all. This is very much the case with government bodies and state-owned enterprises. To establish how far down the road your partners have got we advise asking these key questions

8. Decision-making stays at the top: While heads of department or managing directors and may seem authoritative figures decision-making is often made right at the highest levels of the organisation. Don’t be afraid to ask who the decision makers are and about budgeting.

9. Don’t expect follow up: Kazakhstanis are famously bad at follow up. This is often due to an aversion to email and a lack of clarity about plans. It is almost impossible to to this at a distance. This is why Export Tree handles follow up locally or advises clients to appoint local representatives to do so. 

10. Email and telephone conversations are not binding: According to most Kazakhstani contracts only official correspondence is binding. This is usually official letter or fax. Email, telephone conversations and meetings that are not minuted do not count. So while you may receive promises verbally or by email do expect them to be considered binding. 

If you want further assistance planning your visit to Kazakhstan drop us a quick line here and we’ll get back to you within 24 hours. Or why not check out our Kazakhstan country profile or our tips on exporting to Kazakhstan?

Croatia is moving forward

Wyn River's managing director, Nigel Davies, is also the head of the infrastructure focus group of the British Croatian Business Club.  Nigel visited Zagreb again at the end of June to assess where Croatia's economy and opportunities stand now, some two years after the country became the latest member of the European Union.

Tourism including health tourism, hotels and real estate, offshore oil & gas plus onshore renewable energy, food and agribusiness, shipbuilding and general engineering, infrastructure – a long list of trade and investment opportunities to consider!  

Nigel's article on Croatia includes links to the latest views from the IMF, recent business successes and an informative interview with HE Dr Ivan Grdešić, Ambassador of the Republic of Croatia to the United Kingdom.  This piece was published as part of a wider regional review of the Mediterranean country members of the Council of British Chambers of Commerce in Europe, COBCOE. 

UPDATE: The revised July 2015 eCatalogue of investment opportunities referred to in the article (both state owned and private) has just been published by the Agency for Investments and Competitiveness (AIK) and can be accessed here.

The Croatian Embasssy hosted an EU celebration on the Thames in July 2013

Non Executive Directors - "Likened to the Baubles on a Christmas Tree"

We are pleased to include a guest blog from Frank Lewis, an experienced Chairman and Non Executive Director with a deep track record spanning 25 years as either Finance Director, CEO, Non Exec Director or Chairman within a wide variety of sectors and cultures.  Frank is a successful entrepreneur who co-founded and grew South Africa's largest retail computer chain which he listed on the Johannesburg stock exchange.

He now succesfully manages a diverse portfolio of Non Exec Directorships which include rapidly expanding AIM quoted SMEs in the UK along with overseas ventures. He is actively involved in mentoring CEOs and SME Boards and working with entrepreneurs to grow their businesses.

Frank is an example of the type of Interim Chairmen and Non Executive Directors who Wyn River can access for our clients, especially but not exclusively those with operations in Africa. We hope you enjoy his assessment of the role of NEDs, and the personal attributes that are needed to fulfil the function successfully. 

"The late “Tiny” Rowland once described NEDs as “baubles on a christmas tree” which revealed how little dominant chief executives expected to be questioned by fellow directors.

Since the glory days of the maverick empire of Mr Rowland between the 1960s and the 1990s, it would seem that nothing much has changed. He considered that many members around the board table were like baubles, doing nothing more than decorating the table. A non-executive director who challenged a powerful CEO such as Mr Rowland was not expected to remain a non-executive for very long.

This story is not over. The test for non-executive or independent directors is to prove wrong Lord (Michael) Grade, who once observed with characteristic wit: “A non-executive is a bit like the bidet in your bathroom: nobody is quite sure what they are used for, but they add a touch of class.”

The commitment and engagement required, especially in big businesses, is vastly greater than some might imagine. You are not there to be a bauble, have lunch, make polite conversation and pick up a fee. There is a job to do: a vital and challenging one.

I am sure most NEDs have come across many boards who are not tolerant of challenge and if someone speaks up or asks too many questions, they are branded as part of the “awkward squad”.

Lord Walker in a speech once said:- “The ability of NEDs to stand up to executive management is more important than the qualifications those directors hold.”

While there has been a whole lot of discussion about the need for NEDs with relevant experience, that knowledge is little more than useless if it is not accompanied by a willingness to challenge the executives.

In my opinion, my definition of a good NED is that he/she should:

Continue reading Non Executive Directors - "Likened to the Baubles on a Christmas Tree"

The merits of Bulgaria for trade and investment, despite the collapse of a large domestic bank

The online journal "Bulgaria Now" interviewed British Ambassdor Jonathan Allen in late June about why trading with Bulgaria and neighbouring countries makes sense for many international businesses.  A link to that interview and a set of very useful supporting notes can be accessed here.

Within a month of month of Ambassador Allen's interview, the Bulgarian coalition government is on the verge of resignation and there was a run on two large privately owned banks, Corporate Commercial Bank and First Investment Bank.  

The coalition government has been under increased pressure recently due to disageements with the EU over the proposed construction of the South Stream gas pipeline from Russia as well as a poor performance in the European Parliament elections.  A caretaker government led by President Plevneliev is expected to take over later in July ahead of elections scheduled for 5 October.  It is hoped that the interim government will be pro-business and pro-reform and that momentum will continue after the next elections.

Bulgaria has not had a banking crisis since 1997, and is often praised for its conservative fiscal policy, use of a currency board to peg the Lev to the Euro and well capitalised and liquid banking operations, under the supervision of Bulgaria's National Bank.  Confidence in First Investment Bank was restored with an emergency credit line, but investigations are continuing into the operations and future of Corporate Commercial Bank which is currently in the control of the authorities.  While the bank is closed, depositors cannot get access to their funds.  This not only includes individual depositors but also several large cash-generating state owned companies.

"Bulgaria Now" asked Nigel Davies of Wyn River to comment on the recent developments, which he believes do not alter the basic competitive advantages of Bulgaria as a member of the EU with a highy skilled and low cost workforce, at the centre of a large and strategic geography and market in South East Europe.  You can hear Nigel Davies's interview here

Croatia's new balance sheet correction process and other regional restructuring developments

Croatia joined the European Union as its newest member on 1 July to much fanfare.  Joining the European Union promotes among other things a level playing field in trade and customs, investor protection, social rights and employment mobility.  However, as readers are aware, there is no automatic harmonisation of insolvency and restructuring law or practice country by country and interesting local concepts emerge which can offer some useful data and ideas to neighbours.

Croatia recognised that several companies are now over-indebted, including a number of large companies, and have little or no prospect of repaying all bank loans within a reasonable time frame.  The Croatia National Bank’s Governor, Boris Vujcic, recently presented in London the CNB estimate that Non Performing corporate loans in Croatia may have been be as high as 25% when they enterered the EU.  Other neighbouring countries face similar or even worse scenarios.

This is a common problem across the world and has given rise to the phrase of “zombie” companies.  Zombie companies just about keep going as long as there is no trigger for new money and interest rates remain low, but seem to offer little in the way of growth or realistic remedies for creditors or shareholders alike.  Zombies seem content to stumble on day to day without much direction, hoping for the discovery of a miracle cure.

Continue reading Croatia's new balance sheet correction process and other regional restructuring developments

EU Enlargement in Perspective...in light of the current crisis

As a footnote to the write up on the Western Balkans Enlargement conference in London on 14 February, here is a very recent statement from Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy which confirms and validates what was discussed a few weeks ago.  

1st South East European Ministerial Conference, 14 February 2013, Europe House, London. Assessing EU Enlargement in the Western Balkans: Progress and Challenges

Organised by International Business and Diplomatic Exchange and SEESOX South East European Studies at Oxford, St Anthony’s College, University of Oxford (www.ibde.org(www.sant.ox.ac.uk/seesox

Supported by Wyn River Limited

A very interesting, intelligent and balanced debate between government ministers, academics, financiers and investors covering such diverse topics as the Sovereign Debt Crisis, EU expansion, Central Banks and the Vienna Initiative 2.0, Turkey’s role, what can be learned from Greece, open society, the rule of law, enterprise and skill gaps and political and economic stability generally. There is no denying the tensions which still exist across South East Europe and the Western Balkans specifically, but all stakeholders seem to be adopting a very practical approach to doing business with their neighbours.  The British Government has an “Emerging Europe” initiative run by UK Trade & Investment to encourage UK businesses to consider exporting to a large and relatively untapped consumer base and to make use of excellent engineering skills and low labour costs in the UK’s own hunt for competitive advantage in a global marketplace. 

There was a lively discussion about whether the European Union has failed to bring anticipated reforms, wealth and stability to the region and whether it is losing popular support.  The rules of the European Union which Accession Candidate countries must adopt (such as Croatia, due to join the EU this July) offer best practice and create a level playing field not just in legislation but also physical border crossings, health and safety and labour mobility.  The central funds available from Brussels and Washington help to reduce poverty and finance road and other infrastructure upgrades which provide jobs and supports industry.  The private sector has a key role to co-invest and manage these new projects efficiently for an appropriate commercial reward.  However the demonstrations in Bulgaria in February 2013 over energy prices which led to the resignation of the Government show how effective regulation is essential where the State and private sector interact.  No safety net by the State for those with low income is bound to create social discontent when energy bills rise above the level of state pensions. 

I made the comment at the seminar that individual countries need a positive press to overcome rather negative sentiment that most British people and businesses have towards this region.  My company, Wyn River, works alongside organisations such as UKTI, IBDE, SEESOX and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to bring the merits of the region to the attention of potential investor candidates and help them to de-risk and finance their expansion.  But it is still the responsibility of governments to adopt the prudent policies, priorities and predictability needed to make their markets attractive for new long term FDI partners to work alongside their own high quality state companies and local SMEs.  Governments need to install effective and fair tax systems to finance a cost-effective public sector.  To use new technology such as e-customs and e-governance to eliminate “state to business” and “state to citizen” corruption windows.  There is no quick fix for these new democracies to reach full consensus on several key issues, but as this conference showed, new generations of smart politicians have the power and vision to lead the region to a new prosperity. 

Photo credit:  Alban Bytyci

 

The delegate list from the conference is available here 

Photographs of the conference speakers and delegates are available here 

Pilot's Log - Spotlight on Serbia

In the first of a series of country reviews commissioned by Pilot Partners, Wyn River put the spotlight onto Serbia.

Serbia may be rather off the radar for South East Europe compared to high growth Turkey, but it should not be overlooked.  Serbia is now an EU accession country and future sector reform projects will offer UK and other Western businesses consulting, engineering and financing mandates.  We recommend you look for quality local inputs to work alongside your skilled people and my firm, Wyn River, can help with that.  Private finance and operations for utilities and infrastructure could be a volume play in Serbia for many years but will not fully come on stream this year.  But the core industries of agribusiness, manufacturing and an emerging IT sector may well offer good private sector strategic and financial investment and trading opportunities in the much shorter term.

Read the full article from page 6 of the February 2013 Pilot's Log here.  

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