Malaysia eager for business from Florida trade mission

by Brian Bandell

The first Floridian trade mission to Malaysia was greeted by dozens of businesses and organizations eager to do business with the United States and was granted an hour-long, private meeting with the country's deputy prime minister.

The 34-person delegation of mostly Broward County business representatives returned from a weeklong tour of the Southeast Asian nation, March 7, with high expectations of doing business there. Several deals advanced to serious consideration during the mission, among them a Nova Southeastern University program in Malaysia and a Malaysian trade office in Broward County.

Malaysia has been positioning itself as the economic hub of Southeast Asia, much like South Florida for Latin America and the Caribbean, said Bernhard Schutte, CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based Digital Media Network, which led the mission. With a population of Malays, Chinese and Indians that speak English as their main language, it is easy to communicate and find people skilled at doing business with other countries in the region. Some of the biggest names in technology, including Dell, Motorola and Sony, use Malaysia as a hub.

"A lot of people were nervous about going to a country with a large Muslim population," Schutte said. "But that wasn't a problem at all. They were very welcoming and tolerant."

As part of the group meeting Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, Broward Alliance President James "J.T." Tarlton found the country's second-highest official hospitable to American businesses. Tarlton was particularly impressed with a plan Malaysia has been implementing to boost its economy through technology-focused "cyber cities" as part of its knowledge-based economy.

While, no free trade agreements exist between Malaysia and the United States, as there is with neighboring Singapore, doing business in Malaysia is inexpensive and the government is open, Tarlton said.

"The fact that they're so open and so willing to assist U.S.-based companies to do business through their country is very encouraging," he said. "We have to keep them on our radar screen because they are definitely on a track to success with their vision plan."

A big part of the Malaysian plan is education and that is why its government wants NSU to offer American degree programs there. Such a program could be set up at a Malaysian university as early as this fall, NSU President Ray Fererro Jr. said.

Fererro met with the country's minister of higher education and officials from more than 25 public and private universities. They are interested in NSU's programs in business, computer science, bio- and marine science, early childhood development and advanced degrees for faculty.

NSU will begin a process to select one or two Malaysian partner universities.

"This was really eye-opening for me," Fererro said of the trip. "You have China on one hand and India on the other hand and in between Malaysia intends to be the technology and IT center for the entire region."

Meanwhile, Prudential Florida First Realtor Lorna Honecker is looking for 7,000 square feet of office space in Fort Lauderdale or Hollywood for the Malaysia External Trade Development Corp. (MATRADE), the agency that promotes trade for Malaysia. The office would have a liaison to help local businesses make contracts in Malaysia and have a showroom for Malaysian products.

Also, about 20 Malaysian companies considering sending products to Port Everglades and on to Latin America and the Caribbean met with Fred Rogacki, CEO of International Warehouse Services, which does warehousing and logistical services at the port's free trade zone.

International Warehouse also talked to the private owner of two cargo ports and an airport in Penang about opening warehouse and logistics operations there. With that offer on the table, Rogacki plans to revisit Malaysia in six to eight weeks.

One trip participant was still in Malaysia. Dr. Norman Samuels, president of the Center for Severe Obesity in Fort Lauderdale, was working with at least 12 Malaysian hospitals to provide weight-loss services, including surgery, the Broward Alliance's Tarlton said.

Another participant was looking at making trade deals both ways. Lauro Bianda, president of Lake Worth-based international consultant Agycon, found Malaysian-produced medical supplies a U.S. client of his could use. Bianda also learned generic pharmaceuticals manufactured by another of his clients are in demand in Southeast Asia.

"I see Florida and Malaysia as two hubs that can compliment each other," Bianda said. "If you're able to combine the two together, you'll be able to combine services through each other to both regional areas."

Brian Bandell - South Florida Business Journal