Ray Schuster, Founder, The Hoffman Agency Singapore

This stretch of Tanjong Pagar Road “showcases” our first office in Singapore. It turns out the very same shot appears in Wikipedia.

Talk about a startup. In 1996 Hoffman Asia Pacific was a classic — roots spreading from San Jose to Singapore in one fell swoop, without proven leadership (me), little-to-no visibility in the region, and only Lou Hoffman’s vision underwriting the whole thing.

I flew back to Singapore a few weeks after the scouting trip to set up shop. With an office, an apartment, a ton of luggage and unfounded confidence, I went to work.

Lou had connected with a company based in The Netherlands that managed print projects for technology companies. Its Singapore managing director, Edwin de Greef, said there was space available in the building that his company was leasing. We agreed to sub-lease the second floor for Hoffman Asia Pacific.

With many trips up and down a long flight of stairs, we used Edwin’s company copy machine until we got our own, and in an unofficial bartering arrangement, he grabbed my (Hoffman’s!) copy of the International Herald Tribune every morning when it landed on the doorstep of the building — a “shop house” in Singapore terms, where people in previous times had small businesses on the ground floors and lived upstairs.

The first order of business had been to buy furniture and equipment for the new space — “startup quality and quantity,” but enough to function. (Copy machine came later, but we did get one and regained full possession rights to the IHT from downstairs neighbor Edwin).

Opening a bank account presented a stumbling block, as the Singapore bank required the company CEO (Lou) to sign the account papers — in person — which meant waiting for him to visit while I kept the sizable deposit check under lock and key. This was one of several new and puzzling startup requirements we encountered. But going along was the only option, and it was eventually clear that there were reasons behind everything Singapore did.

Getting a business license for the company and a permanent work pass for me presented another test of equanimity. That’s another post.

In the meantime, I made contacts with current and potential Hoffman clients, lunched with press people — an astute and skilled group — and hired the first local staff person. That was a big step, and I wanted to get it right. We had the benefit of a recommendation from a former Hoffman Agency employee, William Gautier, who had previous experience working in Singapore. He recommended Maureen “Mo” Tseng. I met William and Maureen for lunch, which I learned was a day after her wedding; William was there to help celebrate. His talent judgment was excellent, and I mentally hired Maureen in the middle of the lunch interview, but made it official a day or two later, with Lou Hoffman’s approval.

She was a star right away, good at client relations and media contacts, a skilled writer, and a helpful coach on the ways of Singapore business (and restaurants). Maureen continues to contribute to Hoffman Asia Pacific today as director, client services.

A second early staff addition was a young woman, Karen Neo, who took care of administrative tasks that had given me fits. She managed the payroll, payables, utilities, and handled Singapore retirement fund contributions and other government paperwork. I could concentrate on client service, new business, and staff professional development, and in the process learned what it took to be PR-successful in Asia Pacific, and specifically in Singapore.

A startup no more, Singapore today is one of six Hoffman Asia Pacific offices: full-service operations in Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, and Tokyo, with 80 total employees — all from a modest Singapore beginning 20 years ago. (And all the offices have their own copy machines.)