Ray Schuster, Founder, The Hoffman Agency Singapore

We took Lou Hoffman’s word for it 20 years ago when he decided there was opportunity in Asia Pacific for a relatively small, independent, San Jose, California-based public relations consulting firm. Few of us working in the agency at the time had ever been to the region, let alone knew anything about opportunities for U.S.-style public relations there.

It turns out Lou knew.

With several Hoffman Agency (HA) technology clients developing markets in Asia, he made several scouting trips to check out PR needs and opportunities. He had lined up a few PR contributors to work on client projects in various markets. Remember, this was 20 years ago. It was early in the game, when “high-tech” in Asia was beginning to grow out of its role as low-cost-manufacturing options to become the ascending markets for those products. Stirrings of homegrown tech startups in Southeast Asia and the rest of the continent added to the PR potential.

Not surprisingly, several of the large, international PR firms with thousands of employees and deep financial pockets had also sniffed out the Asia Pacific market and were establishing beachhead offices. (In contrast, at the time HA had only the San Jose office, with fewer than 25 employees, creating a classic underdog scenario.)

An exec with one of those big internationals (he was a neighbor, truth be told) had approached me with an offer to set up an office in Beijing on a three-year assignment. Hmm. Three years? Big new corporate employer? Trail blazing in Beijing? Salary “to be determined?”

Flattering, but easy to decline.

Still, the international appeal was strong. A few years earlier I had turned down a communication position with an international non-profit based in Vienna, and the “foreign shores” allure remained when Hoffman Asia Pacific peeked over the horizon.

I raised my hand and started lobbying Lou for the assignment.

It was a tough sell. I’d never been closer to Asia than Hawaii, and had only vague ideas of the regional geography, business climate, media or other relevant matters. Lou’s decision was complicated: hire a Singaporean PR pro who knew the ropes there, or send one of his employees over to get things going. The benefit of the first option was clear, but I made a case for the second option by pointing out that I was a known quantity (whatever that was), steeped in the “Hoffman Agency way” of doing business, and could apply it from the get-go. Language wouldn’t be a barrier, because English was the language of business in Singapore (another bow to Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew). And a one-year assignment made it manageable from my personal and family standpoint.

Lou either agreed with me, or I wore him down (unlikely, since he doesn’t wear down easily). Anyway, he gave me the job.

I would be responsible for setting up an office and hiring staff; getting acquainted with business, trade and general media; connecting with existing HA clients with operations in Singapore (especially one big one); expanding that business; and developing new business with a focus on U.S. firms with regional offices in Singapore and other spots in Southeast Asia. Quite a load for a one-year stint, but my innocence helped me believe I could do it.

I began researching Singapore media and communicating by email (we didn’t “reach out” back then). Responses were friendly and encouraging. With due respect to my U.S. press colleagues, their Singapore counterparts showed a bit more receptivity to PR guys.

Lou briefed me on existing AP clients and programs underway with them.

Then the reality set it: I would be moving to Singapore, leaving behind my wife, Judy, extended family, two cats and my Alfa Romeo 164. My mother, living in Chicago, was her usual supportive self: “Whatever you think is best. Where is that again?”

My move prep included a trip to Singapore with Judy a month before the move. Having never been there, or anywhere else in Asia, it seemed like a good idea to do a scouting trip and find a place to live. Judy didn’t move with me, as she had a busy real estate practice, an elderly mother and aunt to care for, and there wouldn’t have been a lot for her to do in Singapore. She would visit several times, and once we met in Beijing to visit friends.

Hoffman Agency employees in Singapore

Ray’s Days in Singapore — Mark Teo, Maureen Tseng, Ray Schuster, Judy Schuster

It worked out. I had put the prized Alfa in the hands of my stepdaughter, and gave the Alfa mechanic a dollop of dollars, as a “repair kitty,” which emptied quickly.

The scouting visit paid off. I had an office for Hoffman Asia Pacific, a place to live, some initial media contacts, and experienced the helpfulness and kindness of Singaporeans. I also came away with first-hand experience of what a monsoon is and felt the legendary heat and humidity of that small island close by the equator.

Singapore saga launched.


Feature Image Source: Classic Italian Cars