Leading Australian Economist, Carey Ramm, isn’t the first business leader to highlight lost opportunity in Townsville’s reluctance to embrace ASIAPac market opportunities.
“What Townsville has to recognise is that it’s future lies outside the national boundaries. We’re closer to Asia than we are to Melbourne and therefore, we should be looking North for growth, not south.”
— Carey Ramm
As the Founder and Managing Director of the only Australian company operating successfully in every Asian country, Carey is highly qualified to give advice on how and why the Asia algorithm should be maximised as a key economic driver for this region.
When Mathematical Economist, Founder and Director of AEC Group, Carey Ramm, exited his role as Ministerial Advisor to the Prime Minister in 1993, he left Canberra with a strong reputation, a pocket full of learnings and a stealthy contact list.
His numbers and market foresight were always going to be on point, but it was still a tentative start to the AEC Group from the spare room of the two-bedroom unit he rented. Carey faced the same challenges all new business owners face, but he was armed with surplus trading insight.
“My career in politics taught me a lot,” says Carey. “Federal politics is played at a very brutal level and I learnt that I didn’t want to be a politician. But more relevant to my business venture, I learnt how the corporate sector interacts with government, so I was able to bridge the political and government spectrum with business.”
With a cross section of industry contacts from his political career and an unwavering commitment to nurturing client relationships; the fledging economic and financial consultancy was advising the country’s major mining companies and government departments before they hit the five-year mark. By the end of the 1990’s, AEC Group was not just advising other businesses, they commenced building their own as well.
“We started making money as the AEC Group and decided to look at creating our own projects – essentially taking our own advice.” Carey says. Fast-track to 2018 and Carey’s biggest clients are his own businesses. AEC Group is now a holding company to a diverse and lucrative portfolio of brands; an employer of over 2,000 people across ASIAPac and the US – and the global AEC Group financial footprint is managed from a modest office, right here in Townsville.
“AEC Group has put its money where its mouth is – literally. For example, we spotted the trend in health and fitness and we’ve grown that and our pharmaceuticals into one of the bigger enterprises in Asia and the Middle East. We’ve got our own manufacturing facilities in the USA and in Asia, so we are both vertically and horizontally integrated. We control our own destiny”
Carey says that Asia wasn’t a logical step for AEC in their initial growth years and he appreciates trepidation when considering this market. “It’s one thing managing geographically dispersed companies in Australia but navigating international tax, business and corporate laws, along with language and cultural differences is a complex picture.” he explains.
However, after the GFC it was apparent that world growth opportunity lay in Asia and the Middle East, so that’s where Carey focused his attention, explaining that Australian business growth will always be constrained by the fact that the market size is only 25million persons.
Having traversed the trials inherent in offshore opportunity, Carey says that outside of the obvious demographically led challenges, for the Townsville business sector to maximise opportunity across Asia several bottlenecks need to be overcome, with number one being our entrenched, parochial attitude.
“What Townsville has to recognise is that it’s future lies outside the national boundaries. We’re closer to Asia than we are to Melbourne and therefore, we should be looking north for growth, not south. That means that people need to spend their time, money and efforts going up there and forging relationships.”
He points out that while much noise is made about Asian corporates coming down here, buying cattle stations and forging business relationships, there isn’t much uptake of the reciprocal opportunity Asia is offering us. “I’m an Australian and I’m up there as one of the largest health care sellers in China.”
Carey suggests that as a community we need to invest in local and overseas incubator facilities, to assist market entry by other local businesses. Austrade currently offers Australian business access to trade office facilities, but to get to that trading level in the first place, what’s necessary are Incubators that provide support, hot desks and access to the expertise of people currently doing business in Asia.
“The Sister Cities Program is a great program; the annual James Cook University Asian Market Forum is excellent but we need to take it to the next level and provide a support mechanism that reduces risk and perceived obstacles.” Carey says. “It’s no different to starting a business in Australia except for the increased scale of opportunity.”
Initiatives such as incubators, need to be developed and supported by mentors who know the ropes. “I know I would be happy to act in a mentorship capacity if such facilities were available and I’m sure my local peers who operate in the overseas markets would be too.” says Carey.
Mastering the Digital Economy
Another significant opportunity and challenge for the North is how the region integrates into the digital economy and engages in digital e-commerce. In terms of logistics, the world is shrinking, and sending parcels from Townsville to Brisbane is the same as sending them to China for example and only takes 2 or 3 days.
“It’s about how we get our local businesses to change up their approach to online marketing and not just appear as a local business selling purely into North Queensland or Australia.” says Carey. “Platforms such as Ali Baba, TMall, JD and Amazon provide opportunity to move products, but we must ensure our online presence is both tailored to and interactive with consumers in China, India and the Middle East. If you are just talking to a local, online audience of 200,000, you’re limiting your growth potential substantially.”
The New Generation Leadership Community
Along with other key members of the Townsville community, Carey Ramm has been a strong advocate for the region in the past, but says that the Stadium project was his last swansong for Townsville.
“For the last 20 years it’s been the same people that have been lobbying for Townsville; putting in the hard yards and putting in their own dollars to get major projects off the ground.” he says. “These people have marched down to Brisbane and marched down to Canberra and they pushed very hard to get the necessary political outcomes.”
Carey explains that the new generation of business owners are making a very good living out of Townsville and North Queensland, but they now need to recognise that they have to step up and assume that regional advocacy role.
Carey believes that a next level mentoring program, past the Townsville Enterprise Emerging Leaders Program, is needed to build strong leaders that advocate for the region. “The same people seem to get stuck with it all the time, but we aren’t going to be here forever. Regional succession planning needs to be high on the agenda of the business community.” he says.
Initiatives such as applying for funding and setting up export incubators, rallying for change to International Air Agreements, hosting the Asian business community and taking NQ products overseas through regional ecommerce portals on platforms like Alibaba and TMall Global are projects the new generation business community could and should come together on and action. Their own business future is intrinsically linked to the health of North Queensland.
“If there is one thing I know about politics,” says Carey. “It is that it’s becoming more capital city centric as each decade goes on. You need to be louder and you need to fight harder for the region. That’s critical to our future and ensuring we have the infrastructure in place to do business with Asia and the World.”
Lessons Learned from 25 years of Business
Always employ people smarter than you – In business you are only as good as the people in your team.
Knowing when to cut your losses – Not all business ventures are a success, the trick is knowing when to say enough is enough before you have dug yourself in too deep.
Emotionally involved – At the end of the day it is good to have pride in what you do but you must always remember that this is an investment.
Don’t sweat the small stuff – Problems happen every day, you have to be able to rise above them or you will be incapable of making rational decisions.
Balance your defensive / aggressive mindset – If you are not an optimist you won’t go into business for yourself.
Focus on the key reason why a project should go ahead – not the reasons why it shouldn’t – There are always plenty of people that will create doubt in your mind so you need to shut this out.
Finally, when a problem arises – Stop, step back and say “Ok, how do I turn this into an opportunity / or to my advantage?”