Philippines hunch is paying off
An Australian company is riding the crest of a boom, Larissa Ham reports.
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 on April 19, the expat, who heads up the Manila office of Corporate Executive Offices, is riding the crest of an IT and outsourcing boom.
Ms Butt says the Manila 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 workers.
The office is fully backed and supported by Corporate Executive Offices, a company founded by her mother Jenny Folley in 1989 that has grown to 80 staff in 14 offices throughout Australia, plus affiliates in the US and Bahrain. Butt's older sister, Mariska Folley, is the Australian operations manager.
However, Ms Butt conceived the Philippines concept, established the office and staffing, and now runs it as she would if it was 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-based businesses like 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."
Ms Butt, who studied at an international university in Queensland, had some Filipino connections before arriving and had holidayed in the country.
"When I did move here, I had some contacts. There's still a bit of corruption here and all that," 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 provided some challenges, but Ms 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. It really depends on you and how you adapt to the culture."
But she refuses to adapt to 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?' Any country you go to, you can't presume it's the same as your country."
The fact that English is an official language - along with Filipino - does makes the country particularly attractive to foreign companies.
The lifestyle opportunities - such as having house help and a personal driver - also appeal to many expats.
And while the Philippines has received some bad press recently - including the kidnapping of Australian Warren Rodwell - Ms Butt says that for the most part media coverage is out of proportion.
However, the Australian government's Smartraveller website advises tourists to avoid the area of central or western Mindanao, where it has received reports that militants are planning to kidnap Westerners.
While Ms Butt has a personal driver and takes some security precautions, she says she feels quite safe in Manila.
One of her highlights has been visiting the country's many "stunning" islands.
She says there is still plenty of potential in the Philippines, especially in IT, business process outsourcing (such as doctors or lawyers outsourcing their paperwork), travel, law, accounting, recruitment and nursing.
Many of the small businesses that lease office space at Ms Butt's Manila office have taken over more desks each year, allowing them to grow slowly.
"One Australian company started with four people and now they're up to 60," she says.
"Otherwise you're stuck with a three to five-year lease and you have no idea how you're going to go."
Ms Butt does not do much marketing for the office business, instead focusing on attending regular networking events and word-of-mouth.
She says while there is plenty of scope to expand further into Asia, her focus at the moment is the Manila office, which she intends to keep growing - albeit it a little more slowly in the next few years.