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Barriers a challenge in foreign markets

By Paula Aven Gladych
The Daily Times-Call

LOUISVILLE — Michelle Sie Whitten’s multicultural heritage was a catalyst for her later career choice: Chinese media and advertising.

Sie Whitten, the president and CEO of Denver-based Encore International Inc., is the daughter of an Italian-born mother and a Chinese-born father. She became interested in her cultural background while in high school.

She grew up speaking Italian, but decided to take Chinese in high school because she heard it was “an easy A,” Sie Whitten said recently at a CEO Diversity Dialogue program at StorageTek.

Speaking to about 75 people from Storage Technology Corp., IBM, Level 3 Communications, Sun Microsystems and other high-tech companies, Sie Whitten blamed that one decision for her major in Asian and East Asian studies and the Chinese language at Tufts University and Harvard University.

Her parents always made education a priority.

“All of that pressure on education did pay off, although I didn’t like it at the time,” she said.

The founder and president of Asian Television and Communications International LLC, now a subsidiary of Encore, Sie Whitten began doing business in Taiwan in 1989 and China in 1993. She joined Encore in 1998.

Sie Whitten said Encore is the only foreign media company to have a branded block of programming on China Central Television. In exchange, Encore brought Chinese programs to the United States.

Speaking the language and understanding the culture are a “huge benefit to doing business there,” Sie Whitten said.

In China, the media are still controlled by the government. Dealing with the numerous layers of bureaucracy is one of the many challenges of doing business in China, she said.

Regulations imposed by the central government also pose problems. Foreign companies are not allowed to have a direct investment in or management of a Chinese television station. It’s also difficult to turn Chinese profits back into U.S. dollars, and there are no legal protections against piracy, “which is a huge barrier,” Sie Whitten said.

There also are sociological issues to deal with, she said. The mind-set of the Chinese people is “much slower to change than the rules and regulations,” she said. Power in China is still “measured by how many people report to you,” Sie Whitten said.

It takes about two years to smooth out the rough edges of any deal, she said, but once a business has its foot in the door, it is in solidly.

As head of Encore’s China business, Sie Whitten said she plans to expand Encore’s presence as regulations relax. Many people ask Sie Whitten if being a woman has hindered her ability to do business in Asia.

“Unlike communism in Russia, China took the woman thing very seriously,” she said, explaining that China has as many female executives as the United States.

Paula Aven Gladych can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 211, or by e-mail at pavengladych@times-call.com.