by Alexander Feldman
— Part Two
Ed. note: Last week we ran an article about Alexander Feldman, President and CEO of the US-ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Business Council. Feldman, 48, who grew up in Chestnut Hill and graduated from Chestnut Hill Academy, has one of the world’s most unusual jobs — and vitally important for the U.S. economy. He represents 140 major U.S. corporations in negotiating trade agreements with 10 Southeast Asian nations. Here is more of his story before he got this job:
On Jan. 20, 1993, I received a letter from the new Clinton White House that I was out of a job. It was not a surprise, and I was not alone as all Bush Administration schedule C’s received similar letters as we all served officially at the pleasure of the President, and there was a new President who wanted his own people to staff his government.
Having visited Hong Kong and Shenzhen, China, for the first time with then-Secretary of Commerce Barbara Franklin in 1992, my Asia bug was further stoked. I had friends from university who had moved to Hong Kong and encouraged me to come, and I had a dream of starting my own business.
I managed to convince a couple of my Bush Administration colleagues to partner with me to start a business. We had two ideas which we pursued simultaneously — first to bring American catalogs to Asia, being a marketing and servicing center for Greater China, and secondly to operate the first Starbucks franchise in Asia.
We spent about 10 months developing these concepts. I moved to Hong Kong and worked nights and weekends building databases for the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Asia Headquarters to pay the bills while we worked on our dream.
Unfortunately, LL Bean and Lands End had more business than they could handle from their then-recent expansion into Japan, and J Crew wanted us to hold inventory, which we did not feel we either had the experience nor the capital to handle.
Starbucks did not work for two reasons. First, Starbucks did a survey which said that Chinese people did not drink coffee, so there was no market. (Starbucks had not yet introduced tea into their product line in 1993). Second, they wanted all managers to be trained in Seattle, which was prohibitive and did not make sense.
With hindsight, their conclusion that there was no market for coffee in Greater China was a great miss. It would be almost six years before Starbucks would enter Hong Kong and even longer before they entered the Mainland. However, today the Greater China Market is the largest market in the world for Starbucks outside the U.S. and is scheduled to overtake the U.S. soon. Unfortunately, my dream of my own business was not to be this time.
After a stint working for a small merchant bank (at one point, I was working for the bank and on the coffee/catalog business plan concurrently), I was looking for a new career direction. The TV business was just taking off in Asia, ESPN Asia and CNN Asia had recently been set up, and a three-year-old TV satellite business was changing the entertainment landscape across its 59-country footprint.
It was a new industry. Remember, the Internet did not exist for consumers yet, and mobile phones were the size and weight of bricks. STAR (Satellite Television Asian Region) TV had five channels, including the BBC and MTV Asia, and Rupert Murdoch had just purchased a 50% share.
It sounded great. I was on a Dragon Boat team after practice one day with someone who worked at STAR TV. I spoke to him over a beer. At the end of the conversation I was sold, and I asked him to let me know if any positions ever opened up. He said they were growing like crazy, so the chances were high.
A week later, he told me that Rupert Murdoch had relocated a young Australian lawyer who was tasked with setting up a new division to acquire TV businesses, especially cable systems across Asia. The Cable Equity Team at STAR was tasked with creating the TCI (today’s Comcast) of Asia.
In other words, STAR was going to try to control direct access to the multi-channel TV audience across Asia. I was interviewing to be the first hire on the Cable Equity team a week later, and my government and merchant banking experience combined with the classes I took at Penn’s Wharton School in finance and accounting landed me the job.
My time at STAR was a great ride. I ended up being the first Country Manager for Vietnam, bringing the first international channels and international movies to TV viewers in that country as well as helping to build what is today the largest cable TV company in Vietnam. I also got a chance to help start and build STAR-Warnaco, a home shopping business.
I ran STAR Radio, one of the world’s first all-digital Satellite Radio businesses, and set-up and ran STAR’s syndicated TV division, selling Asia-produced content all around the world. When I left STAR at the end of 1998, it had grown into the dominant TV operator across East and South Asia. It had 48 channels broadcast in eight languages serving viewers in 59 countries.
More information at www.usasean.org
— To be continued