In Asia Business is about people

By Sue Baumgaertner-Bartsch

Highlights from living and working in Asia and why business is about people

One of the highlights of my working life has been when I had the opportunity to work in Asia for a year. Why? It all started on a regular working day when the head of my company in Boston called me into a meeting room together with the head of international business relations if the firm. I wondered what this meeting will be about. Right then and there was when my life would change 180 degrees around. I had worked hard over the past 4 years and showed the nay-sayers that I can do the job even though at that time I did not have an accounting degree. But that did not stop me.

I worked even harder to learn, took upon another master degree studies to boost my accounting and auditing knowledge but most importantly, I learned and did my best to grow the client relationships and audit fees, and I spoke up at times when others would not dare to do so. “Why?” Because I wanted things at my company to become better and knew that change can be a good thing. Consequently, I was offered to go on a working assignment to Asia as one of the highest performing employees in the Boston office. And I was the first woman at that time 10 years ago.

Inner gut feeling

That was truly a WOW moment and I gladly accepted. “It was that inner gut feeling inside of me that told me if you are offered an opportunity to move out of your comfort zone that could broaden your horizon even further, then do it. I knew that if one door opens, another one would open.” Having grown up in Germany and moving to the US was already a first step outside my comfort zone, but I was never afraid to do it, and it was one of the few decisions of my life that pushed me to grow. My curiosity about people, culture and business was stronger than my fear. And because of my drive and goals to get a job in the US as an international student, I landed one and became a CPA with one of the top 8 accounting firms of the country.

Only a few years after putting my feet on the American soil did I get the best offer of my life: Working and living in Hong Kong.

A few months later after sorting out visa issues, lots of paperwork, and planning, I arrived in Hong Kong airport. I remember it was August, hot, and me with only two suitcases that barely fit into my hotel room. In Hong Kong I have experienced the smallest of all hotel rooms in my life and the biggest amount of taxis. Hong Kong is a very hilly city on an island and cars are tremendously expensive to own, so everybody either uses the bus or subway to get to work or walks or takes a cab. Cheapest and fastest way to get around hilly Hong Kong island is by cab.

First work assignment

My first work assignment stop after only a week in the Hong Kong office was China, and for that I needed again a visa. I was fortunate to meet some fellow American co-workers in the office who helped me not only get my visa for China but an accommodation within 2 weeks’ time. Real estate agents are clustered on every street in Hong Kong and expatriate life on Hong Kong island is attractive. How do you manage and go about working in China? Not without a team of Cantonese and Mandarin speaking co-workers. Why? Because rural China is where we would go.

To a factory in the middle of the country where nobody speaks English and you have to rely on your co-workers to be able to communicate. Turns out that our Hong Kong staff was not as strong of speaking the Mandarin or let alone some of the other Chinese dialects people speak in Guangdong province, and that is when we needed support from our China office of Mandarin speaking business people. Auditing a Chinese company was a true challenge. Why? Because the situation tested my patience of working in China.

Getting a few important questions answered by a factory worker on their internal control system took over 1 hour-with 2 translators: from my English language into Cantonese and from Cantonese into Mandarin to ask a question and the same back to get the answer; but as an auditor in business I knew I had to ask a question slightly different to make sure that the factory worker understood my question properly and to ensure that the answer made sense. Patience is the one thing I learned during these 6 weeks on this project in China. What else made working in China a big Wow moment? It was the people of our Chinese office.

Most driven, loyal and diligent and hard-working people

The Chinese people were the most driven, loyal and diligent and hard-working people I have ever met throughout my working career. They never complained or hesitated to do any type of work- even photocopies- when it was required to get the job done. They wanted to learn, and they wanted to learn from me. I remember one of the audit partners of the Chinese office came to me and asked me to teach her American Accounting principles so she can better understand and audit.

Really good at learning rules

I was amazed because this was an accomplished lady and partner with tons of experience in Chinese Accounting , but little did she know about American accounting rules. What I admired about her is that she was not afraid to ask for help and admitted when she did not know something. The Chinese curiosity to learn and improve themselves at work was extraordinary. One thing I notices is that they were really good at learning rules, but what they had a hard time with is thinking outside the box, so I had to teach them what that first of all means. “In accounting, rules are important, but when it comes to understanding a company, their strategy and the vision, one can not only go by rules but by applying strategic thinking to come up with different valuable solutions to a problem.”


Business happens in China when you go out with the CEO or CFO of a company for a nice lunch or dinner. Communication and making foreigners like myself welcome is rule number one. Therefore, as a business person coming from the West, you have to understand that building relationships and doing business in China and Asia is key.

People need to get to know you so they can trust you, and patience is important. As a business person, I was highly respected when coming to rural China to do business with them, because they knew and understood my expertise of American accounting standards which they lacked. If you can demonstrate to them such expertise and knowledge they respect you not only as a person but as a savvy business person. Aside form auditing one of the biggest Casinos in Asia, I found that Hong Kong in particular is a very fast paced and fast moving city. The government encourages people to invest not only in stocks and bonds but especially in real estate.

Encouraged and rewarded by the government

Young people stay with their parents and at home until they have saved up and worked hard so they can afford to buy an apartment. Real estate is expensive in Hong Kong, but again, investing in real estate is encouraged and rewarded by the government with attractive loans and tax incentives too. The other interesting observations I have made when living in Hong Kong is that it is an energetic and vibrant city with businesses being set up fast and entrepreneurial ideas being implemented at high speed.

The most important part is that business is done again with people you trust and the connections you have. While working in Hong Kong, China and Singapore, I noted that people do work long hours but that does not necessarily mean they work efficiently. People take 2-hour lunches to meet with potential business leads, or just take time to foster the team experience when on a project together.

Dinner is equally important to get together and talk about business and to socialize, so a working day is a long day, but it is filled with building relationships and social gatherings as well. Being German I have learned that you work hard but also play hard, and Germans like excellence when it comes to efficiency. At work, you have to deal with people, same like in life, the only difference in Hong Kong was that at work people value friendship more whereas in Germany, people differentiate and consider work to be work, and after work you meet up with friends, therefore, dividing your social life from your work life.

Go out for dinner to socialize

People at my work in the Hong Kong and China office however spend all day with their co-workers and after work even go out for dinner to socialize with them. This is partly because of the living conditions at home -being in a small apartment with a big family and no individual space. The space to enjoy is given when you go out after work where you can freely socialize. The other side is that again, your co-workers are not just co-workers but play a larger role in working life: You build relationships in your business life and that starts when you are an employee.

Those who start their own business after having worked in corporate know they can rely on the business connections and relationships they have built over the years. “What would you do if you were given opportunities in business and life to grow? To me this journey of moving from Germany to the US to Asia, and to live and work on 3 continents has set me up to become the business savvy entrepreneur that I am today.

Relationships across the globe

Building relationships across the globe and following through, coupled with my curiosity to constantly improve what I do not know has propelled me into becoming a better version of me. “ As a coach you need to understand people, as a speaker you need to connect with people, and as the co-owner of this global magazine for entrepreneurs, you have the ability to reach and impact the lives and businesses of many driven entrepreneurs whose message need to be seen and heard. The world has become my home and the people around the world close friends and business partners. So, next time you face a major business challenge, don’t hesitate to go for it, because life is way too short to be afraid of failure.

In business and life, you either grow or die, and the experiences you make and the way you make other people feel is far more important than playing it safe. “Nothing you do in business is 100% safe. It takes courage to try something new, it takes confidence to believe in yourself and it takes your action to create success!”