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South Florida CEO - Mission: Malaysia
South Florida CEO - Mission: Malaysia

Ray Ferrero Jr. takes Nova Southeastern global with a new executive education program in this modern Southeast Asian nation.

Malaysia, halfway around the world in Southeast Asia, was the farthest place on Ray Ferrero Jr.’s mind when the president of Nova Southeastern University received an invitation to visit the nation of 24 million people.

But it took mere months for Ferrero to jet over for a visit that, if all goes well, will mean his Davie-based university will soon launch executive education classes there, with more programs next year — all taught in English by NSU staff.

The move comes after the dogged efforts of Fort Lauderdale business consultant Bernhard Schutte, who was so amazed by his first trip to Malaysia in 2002 that he has become an unofficial booster for the Southeast Asian powerhouse. Schutte describes the nation as “just like Florida:” a modern, multi-cultural area perfect as a business hub for its world region.

It was Schutte who organized a nearly 40-member Florida business mission to Malaysia in late February that produced a host of two-way projects now in the works, from Nova Southeastern’s venture to proposed scientific exchanges.

High on the list: plans for Malaysia to open a trade office that would serve the southeastern US as well as Latin America and the Caribbean. Malaysian officials are talking with the city of Hollywood about the possibility of setting up a South Florida trade office there, complete with a showroom to display Malaysian goods, from consumer electronics to processed foods.

In addition, the Florida Space Authority plans to host Malaysian nationals for educational programs, which may convince the nation to purchase US satellites instead of the Russian ones it currently buys. And the Fort Lauderdale-based Center for Severe Obesity is working to train Malaysian doctors in gastric-bypass surgery, among other procedures.

“Bigger deals take longer to do,” Schutte said upon returning from a follow-up visit to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur this spring.

The moves come amid an economic boom in Malaysia, a former British colony that last year posted 7.1 percent growth, the world’s second highest rate after China.

A longtime producer of raw materials such as rubber and tin, the tropical nation has transformed since the 1970s into a major exporter of manufactured goods, especially electronics and computer chips. Trade in high-tech goods last year catapulted Malaysia to the No. 10 ranked trade partner for the US, according to federal trade data.

With an expanding middle-class, the New Mexico-sized nation is finding it increasingly difficult to compete for basic manufacturing orders against lower-wage, and far larger, China and India. Instead, the Malaysia sees its future in knowledge-based businesses, such as telecom, information technology and biotech, officials say.

That is where NSU fits in.
Ferrero says Malaysia wants to offer more educational programs to help its own residents move up the economic ladder. Moreover, it seeks to attract more students from nearby nations, including China, especially now that foreign students face difficulties obtaining visas to study in the US following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

To encourage NSU to set up shop there, Malaysia’s ambassador to Washington, Ghazzali bin Sheikh Abdul Khalid, visited the Davie campus for talks. And in Kuala Lumpur, NSU officials and leaders from 25 private universities met for two hours with government officials, Ferrero says.

“They treated us like kings and queens,” says James “JT” Tarlton, CEO of the Broward Alliance economic development group, describing the meetings in Malaysia, which included a lengthy session with that nation’s Deputy Prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

Schutte never imagined that a chance encounter with Malaysian officials would prove so fruitful.

Like many executives in South Florida, the consultant had little knowledge of the mainly Muslim nation, even when he accepted an offer to speak in Kuala Lumpur in 2002 on opportunities for business in South Florida.

The visit astounded him, he says. Schutte found Malaysia more cosmopolitan, prosperous and pro-American than he expected. A monorail zipped him around the capital, past what was then the world’s tallest office building, the Petronas Towers. New highways and railways linked him with other cities. And he was delighted with the ease of conducting business in English — a legacy of the free, British-style schooling maintained after the former colony gained independence.

Schutte also marveled at the international prowess of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic residents. It reminded him of South Florida’s Caribbean and Latin American immigrants, who now offer a bridge to the region. Malaysia’s population is roughly 26 percent Chinese descent, about 10 percent Indian and mainly Muslim — a vital link for business throughout Southeast Asia and into China, India and even the Middle East.

Back in South Florida, Schutte, CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based Digital Media Network Inc., decided to seize an opportunity. In 2003, his company partnered with a similar firm in Malaysia, Electronic Business Management, which now serves as the Asian headquarters for his high-tech consulting business.

Then, Schutte sought to spread the word of his discovery. “A lot of people look at the Asian region as a threat. I look at it as a huge opportunity,” he says. “And Malaysia is the secret door to penetrate the market.”

Stronger US-Malaysia ties helped Schutte’s efforts, too.

Washington lauds the moderate, secular nation for its cooperation in the war against terrorism. The government warmed to the new prime minister, soft-spoken Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, elected in 2003 to succeed the sometimes strident Mahathir Mohamad, who spent 22 years at the nation’s helm.

“Everything is moving very nicely right now,” says Marc Mealy, senior director for the U.S.-Malaysia Business Council in Washington. “Actually, during talks in May under the new Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, for the first time the governments even got into some basics about a possible free-trade agreement.”

To be sure, Malaysia faces competition as an Asian hub. For example, neighboring Singapore — once part of the Malaysian Federation — already shares a free-trade accord with the US. And the ex-British colony of Hong Kong beckons on China’s doorstep. But both Singapore and Hong Kong are more expensive to operate from, executives say.

“If you’re not big enough to have a separate operation in China, maybe the way to start is in Southeast Asia — in Malaysia,” Mealy says, echoing the words of South Florida consultant Schutte.

It all adds up to a welcome education for NSU’s Ferrero and dozens more Florida executives who traveled to Malaysia on the February mission and now seek to develop business from that weeklong trip.

“I’ll go back,” says Lauro Bianda, president of Lake Worth-based consulting firm Agycon, which helps sell hospital supplies in Latin America. “I found good products, and people ready to go the extra mile. And it’s very much like Florida — a hub for emerging economies in Asia, just as we are for Latin America and the Caribbean.” — Doreen Hemlock covers international business for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.