Jan/Feb 2016 Cover Story: Engagement & Implementation

Walter Dias, Managing Director (Greater China & Korea) of United Airlines and 2016 AmCham Chairman,outlines in his inaugural address an action-oriented plan focused on creating value for Chamber members and being a thought-leader in an advocacy agenda with the US, Hong Kong and Mainland China, particularly cities in the Pearl River Delta region, as well as with other selected countries in the region in the form of meetings and business delegations

By Kenny Lau


Two years ago, the Board of Governors initiated an important strategic planning process to determine AmCham’s future role in Hong Kong – what it could be and should be – by the year 2020. It was a careful consideration of where Hong Kong is heading and what Chamber members expect over the coming five years, and it resulted in a road map for long-term success in providing high-quality services and further strengthening our role as a thought-leader in Hong Kong’s continued development as Asia’s world city.

“Last year, under the inspiring leadership of my predecessor, Peter Levesque, we implemented the first of our five-year Strategic Plan, which focused on building an even stronger operational foundation, Board structure, and management team,” said Walter Dias, Managing Director (Greater China & Korea) of United Airlines and 2016 AmCham Chairman, in his inaugural address.

“At nearly every Board meeting last year, we took substantial time to step back from our day-to-day concerns to discuss how to keep the chamber – and Hong Kong – ‘cutting-edge competitive,’” says Dias, who served two terms as AmCham Vice Chairman in 2014 and 2015.

Business integration in the Pearl River Delta, Hong Kong’s super-connector role between China and the rest of Asia, the challenges ahead for Hong Kong’s financial, transportation & logistics, real estate, and education sectors, potential opportunities in “smart city” development, and the importance of “one country, two systems” to the continuing viability of Hong Kong are among the topics.

“Last year, we didn’t stop with discussions. We acted. We tested new programs. We adjusted office staffing. We involved our leadership with the overall membership in more closed-door events. And much more,” he points out.

“In short, we have laid the foundation for our 2016 focus on ‘engagement and implementation.’ We will be building on a firm foundation.”

“So the second year of our plan is action-oriented,” he adds. “We will have increased focus on creating value for our members and being a thought-leader in our advocacy with the US, Hong Kong and Mainland China, especially cities in the Pearl River Delta region, and with other selected countries in the region as required by our members and committees in the form of meetings and business delegations.”

The foundation

A top priority during the year is to strengthen AmCham’s core operations to provide additional value to members through better network management and communications, with substantial investment into timely upgrades in IT capabilities, Dias outlines.

“We now have webcasts of selected events available on our website and YouTube; our website and monthly magazine are more mobile phone-friendly; we introduced and refined our social media platforms; and we have tried to reduce email overload…by targeting member interests better, by shifting some announcements to social media, and by installing a system whereby members can select categories of their interest.”

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Dias also notes of moving communications, including content of AmCham publications and directories, toward electronic distribution so that people are “able to do much more from their mobile phones – to easily read event announcements, register for events, and to pay online.”

Chamber programs

Another priority is the continued development of targeted programs, with the initial launch of “invitation-only” roundtable discussions as a sub-category of AmCham events. Roughly 60 roundtables were hosted last year, including a substantial portion of advocacy-focused discussions, and members have been enthusiastic about the tone and content of these smaller, select-group interactions.

And there were much more in China-related programs: business delegation trips to China meeting with top executives of benchmark Chinese companies; building institutional relationships with Chinese partner organizations in Hong Kong and China in support of AmCham members’ exposure to investment and other business development; and closed-door briefings with US and PRC officials on US-China relations.

“Last year we met with officials from 16 different provinces and 10 key cities in China for business development discussions,” Dias notes. “And we expect further refinements to our program variety this year, especially as China’s broad reform and restructuring agenda will require close monitoring.”

Advocacy

In advocacy, in addition to a substantially expanded number of roundtables with Hong Kong government officials, AmCham has greatly boosted its written submissions, following extensive research and drafting done by various committees in conjunction with the Board and the Strategic Group.

These submissions were addressed to the Legislative Council, Environment Bureau, Transport & Housing Bureau, Food and Health Bureau, Education Bureau and the Competition Commission. AmCham also submitted a 100-paragraph list of recommendations to Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung for his Policy Address based upon detailed input from Chamber committees.

“Advocacy has been especially close to my heart, and part of advocacy is finding out the facts,” Dias says. “As Vice Chairman, I chaired our Government Relations Group, which coordinates meetings with top-level government officials.” “This year we will continue to emphasize Hong Kong-China relations, regional and global trade, and Hong Kong’s competitiveness.”

China business

Specifically, AmCham will continue to organize Doorknock delegations to Beijing, Shanghai, cities in the Pearl River Delta, and other locations as determined by members, Dias says. “We especially need to engage our members who have operations in Shenzhen and other PRD cities to ensure that we are providing relevant information and support for their business integration across the border.”

Part of this, he notes, will track the near-future impact of increased road and rail connections between Hong Kong and the PRD. “We will continue soft advocacy meetings with PRD-based officials on how to balance cooperation and competition between cities. We call this ‘co-opetition’ – and getting this right will be an important dimension of Hong Kong’s competitiveness in the region and globally.”

“As always, we will be seeking improved market access and fair competition for business development in China and we will continue our efforts to link our members in the services sector with Chinese companies seeking to go global.”

Dias also previews a larger focus on the changes under way in China. These include China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), its shift from a manufacturing to a service-based economy, its rollout of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and One-Belt- One-Road project, its “national champion” policy for China companies and SOE reform, as well as the impact of the anti-corruption movement, RMB internationalization, financial sector reform, healthcare development and progress in environmental protection.

“Altogether, these changes suggest a sweeping sea change in China comparable to the opening up under Deng Xiao-ping,” he says. “We will all have to stay especially well informed and alert. AmCham will help us do that.

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The United States

In addition to the China agenda, AmCham will continue to lobby the US administration and Congress on the passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which aims to establish a global trade framework with high standards vital to the US economy and workforce in the long run, as passage of the TPP will be an important indication of US engagement with Asia Pacific.

“We’ll continue to follow and brief government interlocutors on US-China bilateral relations,” Dias says. “We’ll track closely the development of the US-China Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) negotiation, share our observations on trends of Chinese outbound investments, and promote the SelectUSA Summit in Washington DC in June later this year.”

“Because of the US elections this year, we will be more low-key on our US tax reform advocacy, realizing that no one will be listening,” he adds. “We’ll come back to this next year with more enthusiasm and vigor, I’m sure.”

Hong Kong

As in previous years, AmCham’s advocacy topics with the Hong Kong government are indicative of the continuing interest and effort in driving change deemed important to the city’s competitiveness. In doing so, AmCham reviews government priorities to strategize how best to muster business support for those areas recognized as truly useful and productive for business, while Chamber committees are instrumental in raising new issues for engagement.

In financial services, as member companies have played a strong role in helping Hong Kong take a leading role in major developments in China and across Asia Pacific, “we’ll continue to work with the Financial Services Development Council, Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau, HK Monetary Authority, and Securities and Futures Commission,” says Dias. “Our goal is to help develop innovative financial products for the Stock Connect, a potential Bond Connect, and the Mutual Recognition of Funds.”

On education, “our long-standing emphasis on the shortage of international school spaces has gained solid government response as new schools have opened up and others will relatively soon, taking a lot of pressure off admissions constraints, especially at the primary level,” he emphasizes. “We thank the government for its productive responses.”

“We’ll keep monitoring the situation as we expect more international schools will be needed in Kowloon and the New Territories, especially as more expatriate families settle in those areas,” he adds.

Labor issues have come to the fore, especially over the last year or so, Dias notes. There are already shortages in many sectors, including mid- and entry-level services as well as specialized white collar areas. “For that we’re looking to strategize with relevant government departments to attract, train, and maintain local talent and to facilitate talent recruitment from overseas – both are essential for Hong Kong’s international flavor,” he says.

More specifically, there is an urgent need for an updated labor law based on international best practices corresponding to Hong Kong’s current and future demand, and for an educational emphasis on the importance of cultivating a global mindset among students, language capabilities (both English and Mandarin), opportunities for vocational training and jobs, and visas for potential overseas and Mainland students and interns for international and cross-border cultural exchange.

The environmental front continues to be a focus area in which better planning for ground transportation efficiency, which could substantially alleviate traffic congestion, transportation cost and roadside pollution, is long overdue, Dias stresses. And AmCham will make practical recommendations on maximizing the use of road- and rail-based mass public transport and containing the growth of private cars.

“As in past years, we will advocate a cleaner fuel mix, encourage conservation, and urge capitalizing on the green and healthy harbor-side recreation and business services,” he adds.

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The transportation and logistics sector remains a major pillar industry as it contributes the largest portion of Hong Kong’s GDP, Dias highlights. “As elaborated by my predecessor, the government simply cannot take a backseat in addressing the eroding competitiveness of the local port which supports the livelihood of many Hong Kong residents.”

“On aviation, we welcome the Chief Executive’s plan to strengthen Hong Kong’s role as a major regional aviation hub,” he says. “The Hong Kong International Airport is a very important infrastructure asset, and the Third-Runway System will create the necessary capacity to capture projected growth in air traffic of passengers and cargo trans-shipment in competition with nearby airports.”

Prospects

“Our strategy for addressing each of our priorities is greatly assisted by five strategic groups of senior executives with extensive experience in the sectors,” Dias explains. “This institutional structure, which draws as well from the Board and Committees of the Chamber, has been invaluable in adding professionalism and best practice content to all of our advocacy.”

“It is an honor and privilege to be in the company of so many friends and colleagues as I take over the rather daunting responsibilities of serving as AmCham Chairman in 2016,” he says. “I am delighted to have the opportunity to help lead this dynamic and influential international business organization to another plateau of excellence in its 47th year.”

“I say ‘help lead’ because after serving two years as Vice Chairman, I know that AmCham is blessed with a team of strong leaders. We have an extraordinarily strong Board of 25 senior executives, and more than 60 committee chairs and vice chairs. We have a deep bench, and I look forward to drawing upon all of them as we begin another active year.”

“As we step into this brand new year, AmCham will remain steadfast in its commitment to engage and work with all key stakeholders as we implement our ambitious five-year plan to create a better Chamber and a better Hong Kong,” Dias continues.

“As always, we look forward to constructive interaction throughout the year with the Hong Kong SAR Government, the Legislative Council, the US Consulate General, the vibrant international business community, and Hong Kong’s entrepreneurs and community leaders.”

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