I remember many of the people who I am in regular contact with from my time at Houthoff in Rotterdam. While visiting our office in Amsterdam last year to meet everyone again, including the board and the international team based there, it felt as familiar to me as it had ever been. It was really nice when Michiel Pannekoek remarked that I walked around the office as if I had never been away.
In spirit and personality, Houthoff has remained exactly the same. There was always a good, open atmosphere in the office. The way in which everyone communicates with each other, on an equal basis and with a good dose of humour, seems the same. On the other hand, a lot has changed. We have become a firm with truly international operations, with a clearly thought-out international strategy, which no longer depends on the efforts of just one or a few partners.
The international organisation and staff departments have also undergone huge changes. There is now a team focusing on business development, another working on events, and a designs team that makes fantastic marketing materials in-house. Besides these, there is Legal Design, Artificial Intelligence and Luminance, and we even have a Chief Innovation Officer. Everything is approached much more professionally and strategically now.
In the Netherlands, we are much more direct in our communication, and we have a greater tendency to tell it as it is compared to people here. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, and so have to be a bit careful. You must never cause the person you are talking with to lose face.
In addition, people in Asia devote a lot of attention to building up personal relationships. Only when they know you, know what they can expect from you and have established that you have the right qualifications, will a business relationship develop, and you will be given work or introduced to another important contact. So that means putting a lot of time and effort into building up and maintaining relationships.
One of the challenges in doing business in Singapore is the huge diversity of cultures there, all with their own customs and traditions. That makes it tricky sometimes. We already know how you have to present your business card in Asia, but what is less obvious is that ‘yes’ doesn’t always mean ‘yes’, and you have to think, for example, about what colour wrapping paper you should use for a business gift, because certain colours could be negative or insulting. Preparation is therefore really important: who are you meeting, what is their background, where do they come from, what is their job and what are their recent accomplishments.
Hierarchy is also something you need to be aware of. Never send a sales manager if a meeting has been arranged at board level. This could be interpreted as an insult. And always be on time!
In Singapore, I am Houthoff’s business card. In my role as representative, I maintain close contacts with local law firms and try to reinforce and expand the international network. In order to achieve this, I am building my network here from the bottom up.
I have introduced Houthoff and myself to the Dutch community, visit many networking events for both Dutch and local businesses, and so my network is gradually expanding. The next step is to approach local government authorities and larger local businesses, which is proving to be quite challenging. But as I have already said: you have to have patience here.
I am particularly proud of the good relations I have built up in a relatively short time with Rajah & Tann (the Lex Mundi law firm in Singapore), which is also strengthening the links again between our partners and those of Rajah & Tann. It is important that they know where they can find each other, whether or not this is with my help. I am also proud of the fact that thanks to my efforts, cases have been passed from Singapore to Houthoff in the Netherlands.
Our representatives strategy is unique. The local law firms I am in contact with are very positive about our approach. Since we only advise on Dutch law, we don’t compete with local firms and so are not regarded as a threat. This allows us to build up very good friendly relations with our fellow firms.
For example, we organised a client seminar together with Rajah & Tann, inviting not only Rajah & Tann clients, but also business contacts and Houthoff clients who have a presence in Singapore. This is how we show our clients that we really do operate internationally, know what is going on in the local market and are able to assist them around the world.
There is so much to see and do in Singapore, but an absolute must is to enjoy a sundowner with a view across Marina Bay! Settle yourself just before sunset with a drink at one of the higher viewpoints such as the terrace of 1-Altitude, Level 33 or Smoke & Mirrors and enjoy the views of the beautiful skyline.
Also, go out for a meal in or near Lau Pa Sat, one of the oldest hawker centres in Singapore. After seven in the evening the street is closed off to traffic and renamed Satay Street, where you can enjoy delicious satay, huge grilled shrimps and other street food in amongst the skyscrapers.