SAUPO’s full title may be a mouthful when read aloud, but the annual Asia business conference’s brand name is becoming more appropriate as the years go by.
While hosted under the auspices of Kennesaw State University since 2011, the Symposium on Asia-U.S. Partnership Opportunities has always focused on forging tangible business connections. This year, organizers upped their game on this front.
“It has always been the focus, but this year we focused on it more,” said May Gao, a communications and Asian studies professor at Kennesaw State who organizes the conference, billed as the largest Asia-focused summit in the Southeast.
Dr. Gao said millions of dollars in deals are in the works as a result of the event, which attracted 380 people, about a quarter of them from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
This year at the Loews Hotel in Midtown, conference delegates mingled with service providers, airlines like Delta and product companies like Chinese telecom and smartphone giant Huawei, a perennial sponsor. Along with content on topics like branding, Chinese investment in the U.S. and more, the conference used networking breaks and sponsor interludes to spur deal-making activity.
Atlanta representatives of real estate companies like Berkshire Hathaway Home Services didn’t just promote their own name; they highlighted Atlanta’s position in the U.S. market, aiming to induce overseas investors to dive in.
Dan Forsman, CEO of BHHS Georgia, said the recession hammered the local real estate market, creating a “reset” in terms of asset values. He pitched the residential firm’s properties in the Buckhead Mandarin Oriental and the yet-to-be-built Opus Place high-rise in Midtown.
“What it presents is opportunity for those that have capital to invest, because our builder-developers need capital, the banks are restraining on that. The cost of capital is high, and there are some great projects that can be underwritten in Atlanta,” Mr. Forsman said.
Wang Shengqi, managing partner of Tenfunder Investment Fund in China (who has taken the English name Stan), has invested in a local apartment complex and plans to do more in Atlanta in the near future.
“With SAUPO, we really raise up the reputation of Atlanta, and we help put Atlanta on the global map, especially for Chinese investors,” Dr. Gao said.
Meanwhile, representatives of the Becket Film Fund, which is aiming to raise an initial $100 million to back movies with ethnically diverse casts, say they gained multiple commitments at the conference.
In perhaps the biggest — or at least most overt — pitch of the day, executives for a presidential sponsor, the Chinese Arena Football League, put out a call for connections that might lead to new owners for teams in its nascent venture.
Now in its second year, the indoor-football league consists of a fall roadshow pitting teams from six Chinese cities against each other in weekend tournaments. The near-term goal is to have city-based teams playing each other in regular seasons. Each team has 11 Chinese and 11 foreigners who travel and room together throughout the tour.
To make inroads in arenas and in media, the league has partnered with China’s rugby federation. Eventually organizers hope to build the phenomenon into an Olympic sport.
“I demand a statue when all of this is over,” joked Marty Judge, the league’s chairman, as he made the pitch.
Diversity & Personal Networks
Dr. Gao, the ebullient personality behind the conference, isn’t shy about using her academic platform to connect companies and individuals.
She said she utilized a simple communications theory that explores the power of each person’s latent personal network. SAUPO, in that way, is a real-life experiment in how international business gets done.
“Behind each of us, there is an individual network,” Dr. Gao told Global Atlanta. “You know a lot of people who are in the global business area, so if I get to know you, I have potentially access to everyone in your network.”
She has taken the theory digital and trans-Pacific as well, bringing a scaled-down version of SAUPO to Asia each fall through her personal and business ties in Shanghai. Using China’s WeChat messaging and social app, she stays in touch with college classmates who have helped fill out the event with more than a hundred attendees, she said.
But SAUPO is not just about China; diversity is an essential ingredient, and the conference brings together Asian-American business leaders with a variety of backgrounds, along with representatives of the U.S. agencies like the Minority Business Development Agency. Many attendees and speakers have also served on an advisory board that helped Kennesaw State land an Asian Studies major last year.
Recruiting conference participation, she said, requires the same dynamics that drive real-world business.
“In any country, not just China, doing business is about making friends, so I have been making friends with different people,” Dr. Gao said. “It’s important to find out what are their personalities and what they want.”