(From left) Chief executive Teo Eng Cheong, capability development group director Mike Ng, and Mr Clarence Hoe, a director of the Americas Group and Human Resources Group, from IE Singapore. -- PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
WHEN Mr Clarence Hoe told Brazilians that he was from Singapore in 2008, he got bemused stares.
'They thought I was from a Brazilian high-rise housing project for poor families called Project Singapore,' he explained.
But as the centre director of International Enterprise (IE) Singapore's office in Sao Paulo (till his stint ended last year), Mr Hoe could not simply laugh it off as an amusing story.
To help Brazilians become more aware of what Singapore was actually like, he invited local journalists and businessmen to visit the country.
That is an example of the challenges that IE Singapore's 36 overseas offices have to overcome. The first two opened in New York and Tokyo in 1977, but the network has generally stayed low-key in the Singaporean public eye.
The network spans major centres like London and Shanghai, and emerging markets such as Wuhan in China and Surabaya in Indonesia.
However, the broad aim of the offices - to help Singaporean companies find business opportunities overseas, and gain market access and financing - remains the same.
'One (challenge) major firms face is the lack of overseas market knowledge on issues like potential partners overseas, government regulations and the local political situation,' observed IE Singapore chief executive Teo Eng Cheong.
'We build good relationships with companies that can be partners, like suppliers, and network with people at a fairly high level who can move things and have influence on business projects in these countries where we operate.'
Prime locations for setting up IE offices often have three attributes: a sizeable or growing market, favourable government policies for trade and investment, and natural resources. One example is the office that will be opened in October in Yangon, Myanmar - a country that has grabbed the attention of companies here with its rapid economic liberalisation.
The size of the office depends on the market's importance, but the leanest set-ups consist of one Singaporean centre director, a marketing officer hired locally, a secretary and a driver. In cities like Beijing, there are three centre directors.
IE now has 130 staff from Singapore in these centres.
It costs a few hundred thousand dollars a year to run each office.
Day-to-day work ranges from something as complex as analysing market reports to something as simple as reading the local newspapers.
Centre directors also travel beyond their base - about 260 days a year for Mr Hoe - to meet political and business contacts who could hold the key to potential opportunities for Singapore companies. They touch base with headquarters here weekly.
Said Mr Mike Ng, group director of IE's capability development group, of his New Delhi stint between 2006 and last year: 'Part of my work involved sizing up the needs of local companies that could be potential partners, suggesting specific partner Singaporean firms and then helping to get meetings and subsequent discussions into fruition.'
It can be a long process, especially with the misgivings that Singaporean companies often have about new markets with unfamiliar challenges for doing business, according to centre directors.
Still, the satisfaction is sweet when their efforts bear fruit and companies land good deals.
Mr Hoe, who is now based here as a director of the Americas Group and the Human Resources Group, recalls researching the Brazilian market in 2008 with Tex Line, a Singapore garment trading company, and discovering that Brazilians were just beginning to turn to more cost-competitive Asian countries for garment imports - a ripe time for Tex Line to quickly enter the market.
'Had we not been there in the first place already sniffing out opportunities, we might have missed out on that prime opportunity,' he said.
Another discovery was that the government of the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil placed a premium on the efficiency of internal processes too - similar to how Singapore works. A potential new business market was firmed up, and in 2008, IE introduced Jurong Consultants as a master planner - the company's first such South American contract.
As for future plans, IE is always on the lookout for sizeable and growing markets, said Mr Teo. 'IE is keen on the South-east Asian and Chinese markets - and Africa is interesting too because of its huge market and natural resources.'