Peter Osborne: In China you are participating in change at every level

Interview by Molly O'Brien

Peter Osborne has lived and worked in a myriad of countries in Asia for nearly 30 years. Fluent in Mandarin-Chinese, Peter is responsible for Blackmores’ entire Asia business, including subsidiary companies in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, China and Japan, and overall strategy for Blackmores’ growth objectives in Asia.

Prior to joining Blackmores in 2009, Peter was one of Australia’s most senior trade diplomats working with the Australian Trade Commission in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. He also spent several years in Fiji as the Trade and Investment Director of the South Pacific Forum Secretariat and served as Expert Adviser to the UN Conference on Trade and Development and the UN Commission for Sustainable Development. 

Peter's passion for living in Asia is palpable; after speaking with him about what his job involves, the most prominent professional opportunities currently available China and how Australian businesses can successfully scale there, it's easy to see why he's still living there after 30 years. 

Can you briefly describe your Asia journey?

I first visited Asia in the mid-1980s as a tourist, then with work after joining the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade) in the late 1980s. By chance, I was one of the few bureaucrats working on Taiwan-related trade and investment development. I was subsequently posted to Taipei, which started my real Asia journey. I did two postings in Taiwan, a posting in Fiji on secondment to the South Pacific Forum Secretariat, then further postings with Austrade to Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing. I was then approached to leave the public sector and join Blackmores, Australia’s leading natural health company, to grow their Asia business. I’ve been with Blackmores since 2009, and have now spent nearly 30 years living and working in Asia.

What does your role as Managing Director of Asia at Blackmores involve?  

I’m responsible for Blackmores’ Asia business, including subsidiary companies in Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea and China, a joint venture in Indonesia, distribution partnerships in Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Iran and Pakistan and overall strategy for Blackmores’ growth objectives in Asia. Blackmores has an AUD$250 million plus turnover from Asian consumers and employs over 900 staff in 14 markets in Asia, so it’s a pretty busy job! 

What’s the biggest drawcard for expats to move to China? How would you describe the quality of life for an expat?

I think the biggest drawcard is the sheer fascination associated with being in one of the fastest growing economies in the world. China is a country that is changing global geopolitics and consumer preferences, which is influencing so much of what is happening in the world today. China has an amazing culture, heritage, and history. Living there, you can actually feel you are participating in change at every level. 
 

"CHINA IS A COUNTRY THAT IS CHANGING GLOBAL GEOPOLITICS AND CONSUMER PREFERENCES, WHICH IS INFLUENCING SO MUCH OF WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE WORLD TODAY."
 

China can be amazing but also confronting and challenging, it tests you on every level. As an expat in China, the quality of life is ultimately how you make it for yourself, and you need to immerse yourself in the chaos and dynamism of the country to really get the most out of living here. 

What is the key ingredient for Australian businesses to successfully scale in Asia? 

I believe that the traits for business and personal success in Asia are similar - passion, tenacity, resilience, and flexibility. Being able to adapt to markets that are in a state of constant flux is important. For Blackmores, we also believe that it’s critical to have deep market understanding, which is why only employ strong local Country Managers and empower our teams in the markets. We have no expats in Asia, and even I am employed on a local package and local conditions. In-country nationals understand the idiosyncrasies of their markets better than anyone else. I also believe it’s very important for Australian companies to maintain their “Australian-ness” principles, governance structures and culture and combine that with the cultures of the market in which they are operating. Strategic flexibility and the ability to rapidly evolve or change your strategy and the way you allocate resources is also vital for success.
 

“AS AN EXPAT IN CHINA THE QUALITY OF LIFE IS ULTIMATELY HOW YOU MAKE IT FOR YOURSELF, AND YOU NEED TO IMMERSE YOURSELF IN THE CHAOS AND DYNAMISM OF THE COUNTRY TO REALLY GET THE MOST OUT OF LIVING HERE.” 
 

What do you recognise as the key professional opportunities in China in the current landscape?

I think there remain excellent opportunities for experienced Australian managers who can operate effectively in complex cross-cultural environments. Both foreign companies operating in China and Chinese companies seeking to expand offshore or evolve their own management structures and strategies are looking for good managers with deep experience working in overseas markets who have had to deal with complex management, commercial and HR issues.  Australians are also seen as being very versatile managers with flexibility, dedication and have a good understanding of the complexities of operating in China. 

What skills or knowledge would you advise prospective expats to acquire before moving to China?

China is not the postcard view of Shanghai, and just under the surface of the extremely sophisticated international Chinese cities like Shanghai and Beijing and Guangzhou lies the “real China” which is one that many expats, particularly their families, will find extremely confronting and challenging. However, these challenges are balanced by the incredible experience of living in such a fascinating country. Expats moving to China need to take a total view. Learning at least some Chinese and understanding China’s history is also important as it really helps to understand the culture of the country and helps you engage more rapidly with Chinese people.    

I’m also a really strong believer in the concept of “try before you buy”, and advise people to visit the city they are planning to live in, including with family members, at least once before making the decision to move. Engaging with the local Australian community and other support networks on arrival is also really valuable.
 

"CHINA IS FASCINATING, CHALLENGING AND DYNAMIC."
 

You’ve spent time living in many different countries in Asia. Do you have a particular favourite? 

That’s a hard question! Of all the places I’ve lived, I really love living and working in China, for all the reasons I noted earlier, it’s fascinating, challenging and dynamic. The people, the chaos, the pace of change and the sheer beauty, too. I love the energy and dynamism of Asia. It’s like a drug that you can never give up, every day there will be something that will be new, that you’ve never seen or encountered before. I love the people, the food, the craziness and also the serenity of some parts of Asia. If I had to sum up the one thing I enjoy the most it’s that here, you feel absolutely alive – there is no opportunity to be a bystander here – you must be a participant.