Lessons Learned: Overseas Lessons

January, 2012
FSC is a small, two-year-old, Hawaii firm that works entirely in Asia, especially China. James Freeman – the “F” in FSC – talks about size, technology and what it takes to succeed abroad.

There must be real challenges for a small Hawaii firm to work exclusively in Asia.

Size hasn’t really been a challenge. If anything, size has been an advantage to working abroad. I think it means we’re more nimble and flexible. But I should probably start with our model so you can understand how and why we’re successful abroad. That also ties into why we formed our own company.

Our model, with our size and growth potential, is purposely limited to the amount of work any one partner can be seriously involved in in any given year. In other words, every client gets a senior partner who’s heavily involved with their project. So, they’re getting the most senior design, the most senior advice and experience, throughout the project. That’s a model that’s hard to replicate in large corporate firms where sales is often the driving force behind a principal’s role.

Do you rely on technology, like email and video conferencing, to communicate with clients in Asia?

The reality is we do have to get on that plane and meet and speak with these people. That’s one of the biggest lessons learned for us – and not just because we’re doing work in a foreign country. The biggest lesson I know in this profession is good communication skills. When you’re a young architect student dreaming about all these wonderful designs that are going to change the world, it’s all about the building. And you don’t realize that if you don’t develop really good interpersonal skills, communication skills, you will be very limited in your development as a principal-level architect who’s capable of going out and winning over clients and closing deals, and bringing in the work and then leading the work.

What about the language barrier?

After all these years, I’ve found nothing replaces looking people straight in the eye and being honest. I’ve been in China about 10 years and, not knowing the language, I’ve learned to read people pretty well. I’ve learned that the CEOs I’m dealing with – and who are trying to decide whether they’re going to sign these sizeable contracts – they’re looking me in the eye, and they can’t necessarily speak English, so we’re trying to size each other up through interpreters. And nothing beats just being honest, up-front and sincere. Once they feel they can trust you, you’ve won them over. That’s 90 percent of it.

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