Susanna Swee, Shanghai-based Executive Vice-President, Asia with B+H Architects, one of Canada’s oldest full-service architectural firms, talks with ExportWise about her work and the challenges and opportunities facing Canadian firms operating in, or breaking into, the rapidly expanding Asian market.

Swee explains what makes the Asian market so attractive today – its rapid growth and future potential – and talks about the importance of building relationships and trust to successful business dealings in that market. She also comments on the challenges facing a woman in a profession and a society traditionally dominated by men.

Swee has completed major projects ranging from master planning of new towns in Singapore, commercial and residential developments in Kuala Lumpur, and institutional buildings in Hong Kong.

An architect who also has an MBA, Swee joined B+H in 2010 after a business she helped established in Shanghai was acquired by the award-winning Canadian firm as a part of its strategy to aggressively expand in Asia. Toronto-based B+H, which has been operating in Asia for nearly two decades, has offices in Vancouver, China, India, the Middle East, Vietnam and Singapore.



Traditionally, architecture has been a profession dominated by men. Has that posed any special challenges for you in your career?
Flash player not available.

 
Yes, architecture has been mainly dominated by men, but I would say the handful of women who chose to pursue their career path in this field have not been disappointed.

The initial bias of clients, especially Asian clients who tend to prefer male architects, disappears quickly once you are able to convince them that you are as competent as your male counterpart.

The challenge for you as a female, is more about how you are able to balance a family life with a demanding career.

What inspired your decision to pursue architecture, and then a business administration degree?

I have always held to my belief that I not only wanted to pursue my career as an architect, creating and designing good buildings, but to do more.

I felt strongly that to be successful one must think like an entrepreneur, to add value and perceive architecture as a lucrative business opportunity and not simply as a designer by passion.

This propelled me to pursue my Masters in Business Administration and I thoroughly enjoyed and benefited a great deal from it. I have since been able to apply what I have learned to my current work.

Are you still involved in the architecture side of B+H’s operations or have you shifted over entirely to business administration?

As Executive Vice-President Asia, I am involved in the overall direction and running of B+H China operations, concentrating on South East Asia mainly. I also oversee our Singapore office which was set up earlier this year. My role includes client relationships, marketing, project management and leading teams in projects.

I am still very much involved in architecture and interiors for which I have a passion. Currently, I am involved in various master planning, architecture and interiors of commercial mixed development, residential and healthcare projects in different cities in China and projects in the region.

My background in Business Administration has helped tremendously in guiding my decisions for business. After all architecture is still a business of building... and achieving healthy profits for each firm.

 

More about Susanna Swee

 


Swee joined the Canadian firm B+H Architects as Executive V-P Asia in Jan 2010. Previously, she was a partner at LM2 Consortium in Malaysia, Shanghai and LM2 Architects Singapore. An MBA graduate, Swee combines business acumen skills with architectural experience in client services and business development.

 

She has more than 20 years architectural and interior design experience mainly in Asia having completed major projects ranging from master planning of new towns in Singapore, commercial, residential developments in Kuala Lumpur, institutional buildings in Hong Kong, and landmark buildings in Shanghai.

 
How long has B+H been operating in Asia and what sort of projects has it been involved in?

B+H has been working in China for over 19 years and more recently in Vietnam. We understand how to operate in emerging markets and we have proven experience to show that we can adapt to the local peoples’ ethos and to build distinctive developments for Asia.

B+H has contributed to large infrastructure projects such as the building of airports, cultural, educational, healthcare, commercial and residential facilities as well as having been involved in many master-planned cities throughout mainland China.

Are there special challenges, commercial or cultural, facing Canadian firms planning to set up operations in Asia?

Competition, especially in Asia, is getting stronger, not just from the foreign firms but also from local firms who are getting better at what they do.

From a cultural perspective, firms wishing to deal with China and other countries in Asia need to respect the cultural habits and differences which make China and Asian countries unique. The power of relationships is something which is pivotal in conducting business internationally, but this is especially the case in China and Asia.

China is very different to other parts of Asia, but what is synonymous throughout Asia is that doing ‘business’ is primarily built on trust and relationships. Therefore the challenge for firms is... to cultivate these relationships and to work alongside their Asian business partners. Although contracts are becoming the norm, ‘handshakes’ are still prominent.

The professional challenges are intertwined with cultural factors, and firms must understand that the way things work in the West is vastly different to that in the East. It is important to stay grounded, and accept that doing business is different, so the ability to be flexible and adopt aspects of the local culture will contribute to the success of any Canadian firm working in Asia.

Foreign firms require a different strategy in Asia. It is an environment where information is not always forthcoming or consistent nor transparent. Speed of action and turnaround on seemingly impossible deadlines is simply the way one does business.

Dealing with a foreign language and communication are also hurdles. Labour costs in China are also increasing and capable local white collar workers, especially professionals, are often on the move searching for greener pastures. With the increasing number of foreign companies setting up businesses in China, the category of professionals, especially local returnees from abroad and capable bilingual staffs, are hotly pursued.

It’s claimed that China and other emerging economies offer greater export opportunities for Canadian firms than mature markets in North America, Europe, and other part of Asia. What do you see as the potential for Canadian firms there, in the area of architecture in particular and infrastructure in general?

China is the world’s most populated nation and is developing and growing at an exponential speed. The combination of these two factors provides a platform for an architectural firm, such as B+H, to be involved in projects of comparatively larger scope, size and complexity compared to more mature markets.

China is an interesting market because as the nation matures and living standards increase, the projects B+H undertakes as an architectural firm become more sophisticated and multifaceted. An example of this would be the growing awareness and trend in the topic of sustainability, an area where B+H has the expertise and passion.

In the field of infrastructure in general, there are more roads, highways and train lines currently being built in China than any other parts of the world.

Transportation connecting first-tier cities to second- and even third-tier cities, including infrastructure within these cities, are being developed at an amazing rate.