Philippines hunch is paying off

At just 24, Alesya Butt uprooted her life to follow a hunch that international business in the Philippines was about to take off.

At just 24, Alesya Butt uprooted her life to follow a hunch that international business in the Philippines was about to take off.

Almost six years later, as she prepares to celebrate her 30th birthday, the expat, who heads up the Manila office of Corporate Executive Offices, is riding the crest of an IT and outsourcing boom.

Butt says the office has grown 200 per cent year on year. She found her first client on the plane ride over and now the business has three floors of serviced offices housing 68 companies - ranging from Australian small businesses to call centres and multinationals - and 300 individual workers.

It is supported by Corporate Executive Offices, a company founded by her mother, Jenny Folley, in 1989 that has grown to 80 staff in 14 offices across Australia, plus affiliates in the US and Bahrain. Butt conceived the Philippines concept, established the office and staff and now runs it as she would if it were her own small business.

She says in her early days there, Manila lacked office space, but the conditions were ripe for international companies to invest.

"I saw an opportunity to invest in the Philippines as it sits at the gateway to other more established Asian locations. However, the developing nature of the country meant there hadn't yet been a major push to create opportunities here for Australian businesses as there were in, say, China, Hong Kong or Bangkok," she says.

"There was nowhere near as many foreigners back then, and people were saying business is going to boom."

Butt had some connections before arriving and had holidayed in the country a number of times.

"There's still a bit of corruption here," she says. "That's why it's so important to have someone to support you when you come here."

Working as the only foreigner in the Manila branch has some challenges, but Butt says she ironed out any difficulties in the first year.

"They are very motivated and the most respectful people I've had working for me. In Australia, you can get a lot of attitude off people," she says. "It really depends on you and how you adapt to the culture."

One thing she refuses to adapt to is bribes: "It's not helping the country, it doesn't get me anywhere."

Like any country, particularly those with corruption, it pays to get the right advice.

"The struggle coming to a foreign country is 'Who do I go to? How do I not get ripped off?"' Butt says.

The fact English is an official language - along with Filipino - makes the country attractive to foreign companies. The lifestyle opportunities - such as having home help and a driver - also appeal to many expats.

The Philippines has received some bad press recently, including the 15-month kidnapping of Australian Warren Rodwell, who was released last month, and the Australian government's Smart Traveller website advises tourists to avoid central or western Mindanao, where they have had reports militants are planning to kidnap Westerners.

While Butt has a driver and takes precautions, she says she feels quite safe in Manila.

She says there is still plenty of potential in the Philippines, especially in IT, business process outsourcing (for example, doctors or lawyers outsourcing their paperwork), travel, law, accounting, recruitment and nursing.

She says, while there is plenty of scope to expand further into Asia, her focus is the Manila office, which she intends to keep growing, albeit if a little more slowly in the next few years.

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