Victoria’s Commissioner to Southeast Asia is Brett Stevens, a former fish farmer, now hooked on life in chaotic, colourful Jakarta.
As career arcs go, Brett Stevens – the Jakarta-based Southeast Asia Commissioner overseeing Victoria’s trade and investment interests in no less than 11 countries – has certainly taken a path less travelled.
“My training was a bit different – I was originally a fish farmer,” he says. “My background is in designing and building abalone and pearl farms throughout Northern Australia and Victoria, Southeast Asia, French Polynesia and the Middle East.”
Making the leap into the public sector occurred in 2009 when he joined the Victorian Government’s trade division to manage major projects. Fifteen years of business smarts and project management prowess has enabled Brett to help other Victorian companies sell into Asian markets and attract foreign investment.
In 2013, Brett went even further into the international trade space by moving to Jakarta to become Victoria’s Commissioner to Indonesia and then, three years later, he took the helm as our Commissioner for the entire Southeast Asia region.
It’s a role he loves in all its, at times, chaotic diversity.
“I have an incredibly eclectic job,” he explains. “I may be meeting with a university vice chancellor, then with a small manufacturer from regional Victoria and then with the head of a railway entity in Asia. We’re connecting people, joining the dots: someone wants to sell a good or service, someone is looking to buy those products and we join them together. We engage at a government-to-government, and a business-to-government level within the region but we don’t do diplomatic activities. We focus on the commercial trade and investment space – that’s our core business.”
Although he has called Jakarta home for almost five years, Brett often spends a couple of nights away from home each week, travelling to meetings throughout the region. “We put the majority of our resources into five countries – we have Victorian Government offices in Jakarta, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and in addition to that, we engage heavily with Vietnam and Thailand.”
It’s not at all surprising that Southeast Asia is Victoria’s second largest export market after China, he contends, given Victoria’s proximity, direct flights, similar time zone and a favourable Australian dollar. “And of course, Melbourne has been voted the world’s most liveable city for the seventh year in a row – that’s a really positive message for trade with our Asia Pacific neighbours.”
Trade sweet spots
Where are the sweet spots for Victorian business looking to trade with Southeast Asia in 2018, given the region has a burgeoning consumer middle class?
“Three areas: food – primarily grass-fed red meat, dairy, processed foods and agriculture/horticulture; education – our education institutions have a top world-ranking so that makes my job a lot easier; and professional services,” says Brett. “Professional services are a catch-all that covers everything from engineering to architecture to digital … think cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, deep data and fintech. Singapore, for instance, has a very strong desire to build leading-edge digital technology into their services base, and Victoria has the ability to supply that.”
Education, Brett is keen to point out, is not exclusively about encouraging more students to study in Victoria: “We’re also doing a lot of work exporting Victorian TAFE and vocational institution curriculum services into the Southeast Asian marketplace to develop their higher-value economies.”
Bank on IT
In terms of attracting investment into Victoria, Brett and his Southeast Asian team are working to identify where the prime opportunities are and banks, it turns out, are a key focus at the moment. “Encouraging banks to open branches in Victoria is a specific project we’re working on this year,” he says, noting that it’s very symbolic to have a bank in a regional headquarters as it sends a strong message to the foreign country as well as to the diaspora here. Logistics also come into it: foreign banks in Victoria are an excellent mechanism to encourage trade, ensuring an easy, secure transfer of funds.
While the region has many constraints in terms of physical infrastructure, its digital and social media space is unbelievably widespread and shouldn’t be ignored, Brett advises. “Social media is an incredibly influential platform that you have to be a part of. In Australia, it’s not used to the same extent as it is in Southeast Asia where most people have two or even three telephones – they’re amongst the world’s biggest Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp users. WhatsApp is how many government entities communicate. When we engage with government, we obviously have formal channels that we pursue, but we often get a better result with the simplicity of WhatsApp messaging.”
Brett’s advice for Victorian businesses building trade with Southeast Asia:
For export newcomers:
“The Victorian Government has an incredible network and team that can act as a pre-filter and huge support mechanism for first-time exporters keen to test the market. Companies and individuals can have conversations and get feasibility studies done to work out whether there’s a market opportunity. Also, a tip: when you travel to Southeast Asia, don’t try to cram in too many meetings – some people try to visit three or four countries in the region in a week and that’s usually way too much.”
For seasoned exporters looking to expand:
“You need to visit potential markets to see where your product or service might fit. You might, for instance, have a product that’s perfect for China but it doesn’t meet the needs of Indonesia, Vietnam or the Philippines. Take advantage of our resources. We have people on the ground who can sometimes fast-track things and introduce you to the relevant people. One of our key roles is to join the dots, to be the introductory agent – we’ve invested heavily in developing those relationships and connections right across the region, whether you need advice on security of commodity supply or e-commerce or everything in between.”
Access the alumni network:
“Tap the Victorian tertiary education alumni networks when you’re in Southeast Asia. These people have studied in Victoria and have an excellent understanding of what’s in Victoria – they’re very highly regarded in the business world over there.”