Friday, March 5, 1999

Isles have no
business image, says
econ council head

That may change a year
from now, when the council holds
its annual meeting at the
convention center

By Susan Kreifels


It's not that Hawaii has a bad business image around the Pacific Basin -- it has no business image at all, the chairman of a prestigious regional economic organization says.

But a meeting of hundreds of corporate leaders here a year from now could help put a face on the state's investment opportunities, bringing in capital and conventions.

"They are the decision-makers," Helmut Sohmen, chairman of the Pacific Basin Economic Council, said yesterday.

The council's annual international general meeting will be held at the convention center next March. "Maybe there are fewer people coming than the American Dental Association, but these are the people who move the money," Sohmen said.

Sohmen, who also is chairman of World Wide Shipping Agency Ltd. in Hong Kong, spoke to more than 200 community and business leaders at a luncheon sponsored by the economic council and the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii.

Sohmen said the Pacific Basin's business leaders lack information about Hawaii as a place to do business.

"People know about pineapples and golf courses, a place for weddings and honeymoons," Sohmen said, pointing out Hawaii's biotechnology as an area of opportunity. "It's a question of educating people."

Noting the convention center was empty when he toured it, he said Hawaii should be developing itself as a "serious global convention center."

The Pacific Basin Economic Council is the region's oldest business organization, with more than 1,100 major corporate members from 20 Asia-Pacific countries. The corporations account for more than $4 trillion in global sales and employ more than 10 million people.

Sohmen and others in his organization believe Hawaii should become the permanent home of the annual general meetings. The Pacific Basin Economic Council's international secretariat is located here. But demand is high for the gatherings because of the potential to attract investors.

Robert Lees, the council's secretary-general, said a general meeting held in Mexico several years ago helped rid the country of a stereotype that it was a bad place to invest. Money started flowing into Mexico after the meeting, Lees said.

Last year's meeting was held in Chile. Members this May will gather in Hong Kong, and a lunch that Gov. Ben Cayetano is expected to attend will be devoted to Hawaii's meeting.

The gathering also attracts reporters from the world's major business publications. Two reporters from Asian Business Review are here this week.

"There's no question the image of sea and surf competely dominates," said Nick Hoffman, the magazine's financial market editor in Singapore. He's been to Mauna Kea's observatories and Maui's supercomputer, and has looked at agricultural technology.

"My perception has changed."

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