On 1 January 2017, after leading the largest international chamber of commerce in Hong Kong for nine years, AmCham Hong Kong President Richard R Vuylsteke will become the next President of the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawai’i. Here are a few of his parting comments
By Kenny Lau
biz.hk: How did you first become a part of the AmCham Hong Kong family?
Vuylsteke: Only a month after I became president of AmCham Taipei in September 1999, I met AmCham HK President Frank Martin, who was a legend among AmChams in Asia Pacific because of his expertise in running a first-class chamber.
Frank, who remains a very close friend, was my mentor in Chamber management. Over the next nine years I met regularly with Frank, even after he retired to Arizona. In late 2007, when I heard that Frank’s replacement was leaving AmCham, I wrote a note to the headhunting firm offering to nominate persons to fill the position. After a couple of conversations, to my surprise I was recruited and eventually ended up with the job.
You could say I started as an informal consultant and ended up being the prime candidate. I’m glad I tried to help with the search!
biz.hk: What has AmCham achieved during your tenure as President?
Vuylsteke: Building strong, sustainable leadership and operational strengths are important achievements. An organization is only as strong as its leadership, and we are fortunate to have attracted volunteer leaders of unparalleled excellence – our Board, Committee leaders, Strategic Group members, and even a dozen active past Chairs.
They are all very busy executives, nevertheless they dedicate substantial time, energy, and brainpower to ensuring the Chamber is a force for good – through our high-quality programs and events, industrial-strength networking, and effective advocacy in Hong Kong, Mainland China, and the United States.
When I arrived in 2008, we needed a muscular China Affairs agenda; a high-quality magazine targeting members and non-members; an increased number and quality of events; a broader and deeper advocacy agenda; better services, visibility, and access for our members; and a focused strategic plan designed to keep AmCham Hong Kong “best in future class.” We now have all these in place.
In support of all we do is AmCham’s tremendous office staff. I’ve had the good fortune to work with many wonderful people over the years, but my colleagues here are simply tremendous – they’re professional, collegial, dedicated to serving our members, and frankly fun to work with. I can’t begin to say how much I’m going to miss coming into the office each day and working with them.
biz.hk: What will you miss most?
Vuylsteke: People, people, people. At the Chamber, on the street, in shops and restaurants, so many Hong Kong and US government and business group interlocutors, my mentees at CUHK, the Boy Scouts I’ve worked with, the staff at HKIS, the American Club, and AWA – the list is nearly endless. I’ve made so many friends and acquaintances. I’ll miss all those smiles, greetings, conversations, and – especially – all the great food we’ve shared together!
biz.hk: Why is AmCham’s role of supporting US businesses as well as Sino-US relations so critical?
Vuylsteke: Just one example. We close the “briefing circle.” We see this all the time when we meet with U.S. State and Federal government officials, Congressional leaders, educationists, and business groups. Our members are in the trenches here in Asia. They understand and can articulate clearly the challenges and opportunities for business development.
Visitors to Hong Kong are typically well-briefed on broad social, political, and economic topics by the US Consulate and HK government, but AmCham members can be more candid and specific. They can tell anecdotes that carry powerful insights into how Hong Kong, China, and the region works on the ground. We provide useful insights and practical approaches – it’s difficult to put a price tag on that.
biz.hk: What can Hong Kong do going forward to remain a competitive and relevant marketplace globally?
Vuylsteke: Hong Kong has many opportunities ahead, but foremost in my mind is right on our doorstep. Our connectivity by rail, road, and MTR with the PRD will make us a “one megalopolis, two systems” environment with extraordinary business, recreational, and cultural opportunities.
We need to be aggressive about building both a competitive and a cooperative business environment between Hong Kong and the nine PRD cities. Capitalizing on the synergies in this megalopolis, we can tap into and serve the business and trade potential of South China, which is a huge, rich, and dynamic population with a history of going global. I’ll miss the excitement of seeing this evolve. We’re already seeing the beginnings of this in Hong Kong-Shenzhen interactions.
biz.hk: Would you tell us more about your new job?
Vuylsteke: I’m pleased to say that my new position allows me to continue pursuing my personal mission – to be a catalyst for other people’s success.
The East-West Center a unique educational institution with a 55-year legacy of serving research, training, and educational needs in Asia, the Pacific, and North America. It was established by the U.S. Congress, but now also receives broad international support. Each year the Center has more than 3000 participants for short and long-term training, conferences, and research. I’ll be the first alumnus to run the institution. It’s a great honor and opportunity.
The mix of activities at the Center will be as varied and dynamic as what I’ve experienced here in Hong Kong. Like here, the mandate is to interact constructively cross-culturally and cross-nationally. As you know, I am a “retooled academic” and at the Center I’ll be involved with education topics, but no less with governments, businesses, NGOs, and other stakeholder groups in Hawaii, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the United States.
The good news is that Hong Kong is very much on the East-West Center’s map of interests and activities. I expect to be back here several times a year – even more if I can convince some airlines to set up direct flights between here and Hawaii. So, I’m not really saying goodbye to Hong Kong – just Aloha. I’ll be back, so keep all that great dim sum ready for me!