According to DFAT, approximately one million Australians live overseas. That’s one in 20. With so many of us having a red hot go “over there”, we decided to ask four of our intrepid human exports to reflect on their evolving notions of “home”.
Interviews by Paul Ryan and Jodie O’Keeffe.
Pow Wow International
You might know her as one of the dragons from Channel 7’s Dragons’ Den, but Suzy Dafnis has many strings to her bow. She and her partner (business and life) have been based in sunny Phoenix, Arizona since 2000, globalising their successful Australian event management and learning products distribution company, Pow Wow Events International. She is also National General Manager of the Australian Business Women’s Network and returns to Australia regularly. Her perspective is at once familiar and profoundly global.
I love Americans, I really do. People say to me, “But how can you live there with George Bush president?” Well, I didn’t go there for George Bush. I don’t really care about the politics of it. What I love about the market is there’s just so much more of everything. My industry was started in America – the idea of seminars and big scale events. It was great getting in there and putting our flavour on things. I love the fact that there is a squillion things to choose from. There are lots of magazines, lots of television channels – lots of media. It’s the sort of thing I’m in to. For market research, it’s terrific.
Phoenix is great. It’s the second fastest growing city in America (after Las Vegas) and it’s really easy to get in and out of. Our work requires a lot of travel, and it’s an hour to Los Angeles, a bit over an hour to San Francisco and two hours to Texas. It’s a great hub.
One of the hardest things was getting established as a company and getting some credibility. We didn’t have credit lines – we had to have a friend go guarantor on our first photocopier, which was ridiculous because we were running millions of dollars though our AMEX cards in Australia. It took us a little time to gain a foothold.
I find the American work ethic is superb. Australians are very much liked in America, which has really worked in our favour. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked for the Americans in reverse. But most of all I like the choice. It gives me a different perspective.
I really consider myself as a global citizen.
Managing Director, Williams and Associates
Trevor Williams was a West Australian farm boy before leaving for places as far flung as Papua New Guinea, Aruba, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, England and Scotland. An expat of 18 years, Williams now runs his own executive recruitment and business consulting firm in Shanghai, while simultaneously working the Middle East market. He specialises in the engineering industries.
Being Australian has helped my international career. Because we are easy going, there is a large community of Australians overseas that integrate quite well with other nationalities, be it local or otherwise. On the basis of that you find that as an expat you can get around quite quickly.
If you have the right attitude and you’re prepared to socialise and knock on doors for business, you get a lot of assistance from your international network. It’s absolutely key. I have contacts in almost every country around the world. But you shouldn’t have to push them; you help each other as needed and you’re just part of an extended wider network. Last year I helped organise the Australian Ball in Shanghai and I’m active with the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai. You just lend a hand where you can.
China is an ongoing opportunity for the medium to long term, with particular challenges in the short term for smaller businesses trying to get a foothold in the market.
In China, other people have helped me to the next step. It might be someone who helped me with billing, or my website developer, or other people all over the place. You might not recognise it at the time, but they are often quite valuable going forward. It’s such an advantage just being able to pick up the phone and talk to someone and say, “Hey, what do you think about this?”
Australia is in the same time zone as China, so Australian expats have an advantage. The Chinese generally like Australians. We have a good reputation here. For Australian entrepreneurs looking at China, get a local partner, get someone you can trust. Someone you can work with.
I see the Middle East as an exciting short-term opportunity, while the oil and gas prices are quite high. They’re redeveloping their infrastructure, in terms of oil and gas facilities and in a community sense. And they want to do that in a hurry. So they’re very open on how to get resources and materials and projects done.
I might come back to Australia one day: possibly for the right business opportunity; possibly to retire. But at the moment I’ll remain an expat and enjoy the opportunities and challenges. For now, I see myself with a suitcase in one hand and a briefcase in the other, developing business.
Like many talented young Australians, journalist and writer Luke Collins caught the Manhattan bug as soon as he set foot on the island. As New York correspondent for the Australian Financial Review, Collins was a man about town. When his post ended, he backed himself and stayed on, only to spiral into financial hardship. But he wrote his way back from the expatriate fringe, producing the gem of a book, Away Game: Australians in American Boardrooms.
“Just 18 months ago, I was on the verge of quitting New York entirely. I was broke, I had no work visa and no prospects – there was no logical reason to stay. The only hurdle was mental: I felt the city owed me something for the professional and personal sacrifices I’d made, and I didn’t want to leave with my tail between my legs. But the writing was on the wall and my parents bought me a ticket home. A couple of things happened: I was told my green card application might take years to process, and I met a wonderful woman. I decided I just had to make it work somehow. So I came home, secured freelance work and the book deal, and I got back to New York three weeks later to find my green card waiting – the process took just three-and-a-half months.
Being Australian helps because you’re memorable – the accent makes you stand out in a city of eight million people. That’s important. But it’s a hindrance because many Americans are dismissive of work experience. There’s an attitude that unless you’ve worked in the US, it doesn’t count. That’s frustrating because the one thing I’ve learned is that we’re equal to or better than our US counterparts: we’re just as smart, just as experienced, and we generally have a much more global perspective. Americans can be pretty insular – I guess when you’re arguably the centre of the universe, you’re less inclined to look outside.
Australians working in the US generally have traits common to anyone who uproots their life to move to another country. Ambition, obviously – tremendous self-belief and a desire to prove yourself on a larger stage. And they’re smart and determined. Willingly moving to another country, leaving loved ones behind, tells you all you need to know about a person’s motivation to succeed.
Living overseas either beats you down or makes you more determined. I’m more determined. But a lot of that flows directly from knowing Australia is always there – it’s the ultimate safety net. I think all Australians here are a little more courageous knowing that if it all turns pear-shaped, we can wash up on a beach back home. If that’s the price of failure, I’ll take the chance.”
Early-stage investor, (retired) investment banker
Monaco and London
Richard Farleigh had humble beginnings. One of 11 children, he was taken into State care at the age of two and brought up by foster parents in Sydney. Farleigh worked hard, excelled at university and become the manager of the Sydney trading desk of Bankers Trust, and later a major hedge fund in Bermuda, before retiring at age 34 to trade privately. He now divides his time between Monaco and London investing in private early-stage companies. In December 2005, Farleigh’s book, Taming the Lion: 100 Secret Strategies for Investing, was named the London Stock Exchange’s book of the month.
“Living and travelling overseas I meet people of all nationalities, and one thing that stands out with many Australians is their openness and friendliness. A lot of my business activity involves backing the right people, and to find them, it helps to be a little informal and friendly, even when doing business. This approach is often different to the more formal attitudes of other nationalities.
Business is about spotting opportunities and taking sensible risks. Some countries/cultures offer more opportunities because they encourage risk takers and growing businesses, and also because they are not resentful of those people who succeed. Countries with corruption or widespread dishonesty can be hard places to function.
I also like to take a little of the Australian sporting culture of never-say-die attitude into my business world, and I firmly believe that everyone deserves a fair go, regardless of their background.
Living in Monaco is great. Fantastic weather, friendly people and good food. Sounds a lot like Oz! It’s a small place, more like a suburb than a country, but people often forget that Nice, Cannes, St Tropez and Milan are just around the corner. Skiing is handy too. There’s also famous people and fancy cars. Importantly, though, it’s not a bad place to raise a family.
Of course, I am still very much an Aussie. I love good weather, open spaces, fresh air and gum trees! The internet allows me to keep in touch with the real Australian news, and not just the shark attacks or crocodiles that make it into the overseas press.”