Alumni Profile - Sam Guthrie Master of International Relations/International Political Economy

2 Aug 2017

Sam Guthrie

Sam Guthrie, meeting with ASX, Australia's primary securities exchange in Hong Kong, right. Image source: Twitter

I am Deputy Consul General and Senior Trade Commissioner at the Australian Consulate General in Hong Kong. I run the Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) presence in Hong Kong.

At Austrade, we have three main areas of focus: trade, education and investment attraction. Trade is about working with Australian exporters who wish to engage with the Hong Kong market. We help these exporters identify customers along the supply chain. Traditionally this has been in segments like F&B and cosmetics, but increasingly we are assisting technology led firms focused on FinTech, Cybersecurity, Smart City enabling technologies related to Australia’s considerable IoT and bigdata capabilities as well as our experience in green building.

Similarly, in education, we work with Australian institutions and their agents in market to attract students to study in Australia. We do this by working with individual intuitions as well as running initiatives like our Australia Future Unlimited Event, a large-scale education fair attracting over 1,000 Hong Kong students.

Most importantly Hong Kong is a market from which to attract investment into Australia. We build relationships with not only local Hong Kong firms, but also Chinese state owned and private enterprises as well as global firms that establish a regional head office, or investment office in Hong Kong. We promote Australian investment opportunities to these investors, particularly the Australian government priority sectors of Major Infrastructure; Tourism Infrastructure; Resources & Energy; Agribusiness & Food; Advanced Manufacturing, Services & Technology.

Another key part of the role is supporting government ministers and other officials when they come to Hong Kong. We advise these officials on their meetings and assist them to engage senior Hong Kong business and government stakeholders. A key priority this year has been the focus on Free Trade Agreement negotiations between Australia and Hong Kong. We work hard to support the trade negotiators, helping them engage the community and consult with Australian stakeholders in market.

Sam Guthrie

Building relationships at HOFEX, Asia’s leading food and hospitality trade show, May 2017. Read more. Image source: LinkedIn.

The Hong Kong market

Hong Kong is a particularly interesting market. Unique because of its ‘one country two systems’ model with the mainland, Hong Kong’s rule of law and transparent business environment attracts global businesses wanting to engage the mainland but seeking to defer some risk by establishing their regional presence in Hong Kong. Hong Kong seeks to position itself as a ‘super connector’, an international hub that can engage the west whilst helping western firms participate in Chinese initiatives such as the belt and road initiative, developments in the Pearl River Delta and the integration of the Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges with the HKEX.

I am privileged in my position to hold a Directorship with the Australian Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong Macau. Hong Kong has a very big Australian community. There are over 100,000 Australian expats living in Hong Kong, and about 600 Australian businesses. Hong Kong is the primary business hub for Australian companies doing business across North East Asia. Its great to be part of one of the most dynamic business chambers in the world, particularly as I am able to work alongside such dynamic business leaders representing Australian interests in this region.

It’s also a delight to find so many graduates from Australian education institutions in Hong Kong. There is a vast number of alumni groups associated with Australian institutions in Hong Kong, as well as wonderful professional services bodies such as CPA Australia, Chartered Accountants Australia & New Zealand, AICD, and a number of others: all great advocates for Australia.

Sam Guthrie

Sunset over Victoria Harbor as viewed atop Victoria Peak, near where Sam lives.

So how did I get here?

The Master’s program at UNSW certainly played an important role. I had various academic interests on leaving school so pursued an Arts degree with a focus on professional communications as an undergraduate and honours candidate. After working in international business, I realised I wanted to compliment my broad degree with more focused, relevant skills and so pursued the Masters of International Relations at UNSW.

For me the International Political Economy component of the course was most constructive, complimenting an understanding of how international governments engaged with each other with a deep dive on the mechanics of this engagement, particularly focusing on key principles of international law and economics that guided my thinking on trade and investment and economic development.

The Masters inspired me to look for job opportunities in which I could build on these skills in export exposed sectors within the Australian economy.

Witnessing the rise of China first-hand

Obviously in the early ‘00s our most exposed global trade sectors were within resources & energy however another traditional sector that I didn’t initially consider was the Agriculture sector. In fact, agriculture has led Australia’s engagement in the world economy and championed the liberalisation of global trading regimes longer than most sectors in Australia – particularly through the work of strong advocacy bodies such as the National Farmers Federation.

I took a close look at the wool industry and realised this could be an interesting sector in which to broaden my international experience. At the time, wool was the largest agricultural export to China, representing around 1.3-billion dollars. The industry was totally focused on international exports given the hollowing out of onshore manufacturing. 98% of wool produced in Australia was exported with about 60% of that going to China to be manufactured into apparel and interior textiles. Other key markets included Italy, Japan and India. It was a perfect global business.

The China opportunity was particularly enticing. This was around 2004-5, and China wasn’t on the radar yet for many people. It was the beginning of the scoping period for the Free Trade Agreement between Australia and China. Most other agricultural industries were still focused on WTO negotiations and the USFTA. Few had given much thought to the growing opportunities represented by China’s evolving middle class.

I took a trade advisor role with the Research and Development Company, Australian Wool Innovation providing global market analysis to the CEO and the board and working with the senior executive to identify market development opportunities in China and beyond that would increase demand for Australian wool.

Sam Guthrie

Nanjing Road, Shanghai, one of the city’s main shopping districts.

From Sydney to Shanghai and Saville Row…

Having worked with the CEO and executive to champion AWI’s China strategy, I was asked to relocate to Shanghai when AWI acquired the Woolmark licensing business. I was based in China for almost five years running offices in Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei and Hong Kong. My initial focus was to run a licensing business servicing some 600 Chinese manufacturing textile licensees and to engage with government on behalf of exporters who may have had customs related issues, working with the Free Trade Agreement negotiators and general engagement with Chinese government and industry stakeholders.

Later this role evolved as we managed to convince head office that China was becoming more than just a low-end mass manufacturing hub. We argued that China was in fact the world’s fastest growing luxury market and that we needed to start repositioning our Woolmark logo, and Australian merino more generally, to this new generation of consumers with money to burn on luxury garments.

This is when the job also took on a marketing dimension and we ended up building a number of campaigns to reposition Aussie wool as a luxury fibre. We did some interesting things including creating a TV show that educated Chinese consumers about the heritage of merino wool. We filmed on some of Australia’s most beautiful superfine wool farms, as well as in the classic fabric mills of Italy and tailors along Savile Row. The work we did in those years transformed Chinese consumer’s view of the wool product and I’m pleased to see the industry has been building on this foundation ever since.

On returning to Australia I took on a global mandate running the business development division across the Americas, Europe and Asia. Similarly, we worked with localised teams to do business-to-business marketing and government engagement in strategic global regions and I enjoyed broadening my focus beyond China.

Sam Guthrie

With Woolmark, sponsor of the Hong Kong Consulate’s Australia Day event this year, left, and Central Hong Kong, right. Image source: Twitter.

From trading wool to trading words

Not wanting to linger in wool for the rest of my life in 2011 I approached one of the best Corporate Communications firms in Australia, Kreab Gavin Anderson, and pitched an idea to build a China advisory practise. Kreab were keen to have a trade and investment division that worked with Australian companies seeking to build businesses in China. We would provide consulting services focused on helping these Aussie firms engage with government or communicate along the supply chain to the end consumer. Agriculture was a particular focus and we ended up writing China engagement and international trade strategies for the Seafood, Beef, Horticulture and Pork industries.

Sam Guthrie

Australian foodstuffs on sale in Hong Kong at Savour Australia. Image source: Twitter.

The mining boom/dining boom shift

Working with these food sectors, I was able to witness the early days of that transition from the mining boom to the dining boom up close. I was extremely impressed to see how willingly Australia’s agriculture sector embraced the China opportunity and watch, over the course of only a few years, a sector substantially deepen its market understanding and levels of engagement. I think that is a testament to the flexibility, resilience and ingenuity of our Australian food exporters. It’s a great tradition and I was honoured to be a part of it.

Today as I work with F&B exporters accessing the mainland via Hong Kong, or selling into the domestic market, I am proud to see how well respected Australian produce is here. We have marked out a positioning built on our clean, green credentials. For many consumers looking to buy food they can trust and has that ‘certain something special’ about it, maybe for a family dinner, or a gift, Australian F&B has become something of a no brainer. Australia should be proud of this.

Baiting Austrade and securing a role

A number of the leadership team from Kreab left that firm to create a new company called Newgate Communications. I was delighted to join them in this endeavour and to create what, frankly I believe, is still the best in class Australian firm for Strategic Communications, Investor Relations and Stakeholder Research.

At Newgate, we complimented our focus on working with Australian exporters, with Asian investor clients requiring transaction support in Australia. We worked with significant names including Dalian Wanda, Baosteel and the Wilmar Group predominantly helping these investors engage with the Australian market, i.e. the community, government, media, industry. We also worked closely with the NSW Government and the PRC Embassy in Canberra to promote two-way trade and investment between Australia and China.

In the same period, I continued my association with the agricultural sector conducting a well-publicised review and strategic blueprint for the National Farmers Federation on how to improve farm sector representation in Australia.

It was during a keynote speech to the Seafood industry in Port Lincoln about how to engage the Chinese domestic market that I was approached by one of the senior executives at Austrade. He talked to me about the role of Austrade, describing it as the most commercially focused government agency. There were a lot of similarities between what I was doing at Newgate and the portfolio role of an Austrade Senior Trade Commissioner at post, who must serve multiple clients across various sectors. I loved that diversity and the opportunity to learn so with his encouragement pursued this role in Hong Kong.

Sam Guthrie

Students at UNSW Sydney, Kensington campus.

On the value of a degree in the arts and humanities

The study of arts and the humanities is the study of how people engage with one another. It offers a broad understanding of the historical, sociological, institutional and psychological factors that influence not only human to human relationships, but business to business and state to state relations. This understanding provides the student with an empathy for other cultures and a kind of flexibility and ‘EQ’ that is necessary for communication across borders. In my view, there is no more important skill in the 21st century.

We hear a lot these days about not only blue-collar jobs being outsourced to Artificial Intelligence, but the jobs of lawyers, doctors and accountants. It used to be that if you specialised in these disciplines at University you were secure for life with a career path spread out in front of you. That sense of security is being disrupted by technology. Specialisation is not the ‘sure thing’ it once was.

On the flip side as technology makes the world smaller and some of the staples of the global order change, there is an increasing need for people to be flexible and adapt to change, to be able to build relationships and understand or communicate across multiple channels (social / cultural, regional or technological – drawing on disruptors like social media).

This to me is a time for the humanities to reinvent itself and make its claim for being the most important foundation for any career in the 21st century. Machines, at this stage, don’t have EQ, they can’t build relationships, they can’t communicate across cultures half as easily as they can learn to do my taxes, or review torts, or even advise on basic medical treatments.

I see a lot of people in Hong Kong who are very skilled in their area of financial services for example, but limited in their ability to speak across a variety of different subject matters or consider ideas out of the normal. Worse still they struggle to build relationships with people outside their area of expertise.

My view is those with a humanities background are not only well placed to adapt to a constantly changing business environment, but given the breadth of their foundation education, have an opportunity to lead in an age where the focus is on being able to build the relationships and exchange ideas that lead to real game changing innovation.

People have told me that my strength is my ability to be able to pick up subject matter quickly. I did it when I entered the wool industry (I knew nothing about textiles prior to that), I did it as a consultant working across a diverse portfolio of clients from different sectors. What this taught me is that subject matter can always be picked up relatively quickly if you have that training in the humanities that has honed your ability to comprehend, analyse, harmonise and communicate ideas.

So, I think that’s the value of these degrees. Have that as your foundation and you can go anywhere.

Sam Guthrie

Austrade in Hong Kong briefing Australian consumer businesses on market opportunities in fashion, skincare, and cosmetics. Image source: Twitter.

His advice to future students?

Don’t underestimate the value of the humanities as the most solid foundation to an education, and a career. You can build a variety of specialist skills on top of a BA but I think that there’s a vast difference between those people who right out of the gate were building those specialist skills and those people who have this breadth, this foundation.

And people will criticise this breadth and ask when you’re going to do a real degree – they always have. But what’s important is the throwing yourself into the breadth, it’s learning how to think, how to analyse, how to be flexible, and how to take your knowledge and understanding of this subject and apply it to the next subject, and the one after that. In so doing you are learning how to manage in a world of disruption and constant flux.

That’s the foundation for success in this 21st century.