Meet the Airport Economist: tackling business in Asia one nation at a time

- November 20, 2017 4 MIN READ

Economist Tim Harcourt has fond memories of his Commonwealth Bank HQ replica moneybox. After all, school banking was one of his first initiations into the world of finance. Today Harcourt is a renowned economist and university fellow, whose TV show The Airport Economist provides viewers with all the tips and tricks you need to set up a successful small business in international ports.

Harcourt tells Kochie’s Business Builders (KBB) finance always played a significant role in his life. His family were Jewish traders. Harcourt is actually an Anglicised version of Harkowitz. Indeed he laughingly claims his family changed their name to get into Bondi’s famous surf club.

“My grandfather said, ‘we went from the Goldbergs to the Icebergs!’ he laughs.

“They had a boat that went down the River Darling selling goods to country towns in New South Wales and my grandfather was later a leather merchant. They were also professional punters in Sydney (at Randwick) and later Perth and Melbourne, and had a radio show named after them called The Racing Harcourts.”

In fact, Harcourt is not averse to a tipple, one of his earliest money-making schemes as a kid was running a book on the Melbourne Cup. “And I had a sophisticated election fundraising scheme when I ran for school president,” he remembers.

With a pedigree like this, a career as a professional punter could have been on the cards, but Harcourt tells KBB he was always going to enter the world of economics or politics.

“When the Hawke Keating Government opened up the Australian economy and started to look towards Asia I was hooked. I have been interested in exporting and helping Australian business to go international ever since – particularly small business given my family background.”

Cut to the present and Harcourt’s TV show The Airport Economist is something of a cross between Getaway and Business Week.

“We take viewers to locations as diverse as China, India, Indonesia, South Korea the Philippines and Japan, talk about the economy, history and culture of the place and then provide practical tips on how to do business there,” he explains.

Everyone is always proclaiming the great opportunities for Australian businesses in the Asian market. It’s like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – but what are the realities?  According to Harcourt, Australian SMEs do very well in Asia, particularly in China and the ASEAN markets.

“There are 50,000 exporters in Australia and they do better than domestic firms in terms of profits, growth, employment and they pay better wages and provide better conditions for their workers. There are just a few things to be wary of when doing business in Asia that we explain by talking to experts on The Airport Economist.”

Indeed, Harcourt believes trade with China is central to Australia’s future economic prosperity.

Tim’s tips for doing business in China’s 2nd-tier cities

“It’s our number one export destination, import source and trading partners and the main source of tourists and students. We will be “hugging the panda” for quite some time to come,” he says.

Harcourt suggests there are a few significant differences businesses need to understand before doing business in the Asian market.

“The Government ties are important. When you do business in China or Thailand, for instance, you need to have the government on side. And make sure you use the Australian Government – through the Embassy or Austrade,” he adds. “And it’s a good idea to join a state Government trade mission, like the ones from South Australia that we follow in The Airport Economist.

It’s not just China that offers opportunities for Australian exporters. For the latest season of The Airport Economist, Harcourt travelled to India to investigate the options for Aussie businesses. Given its British history, India may seem less mystifying than other Asian nations, but Harcourt suggests businesses still have plenty to learn before embarking on a trade relationship.

“India seems familiar to Australians because of the 3Cs – cricket, curry and commonwealth and the English language. So it seems easy at first glance. But travellers get overwhelmed by the size of India with its teeming population. My advice is, don’t get intimidated by India – there is a method to what seems like madness – get government help (under Make in India – the Indian Government welcomes foreign business) and consider that every country works at its own pace.”

 Tim’s tips for doing business in India

In the interim Harcourt suggests anyone thinking of targeting the Asian market would do well to check out The Airport Economist.

Even if you are in one market (say Singapore) and looking at another (like Japan or India) you’ll get some country-specific knowledge and insight. Students of economics and history who are just interested in international relations and the world at large will also benefit from watching the show.

At the moment, The Airport Economist is in Asia but next year it’s Latin America and then it’s emerging markets in Europe and beyond, so stay tuned!

Tim’s top tips for anyone wanting to enter the Asian market

Use the Government badge – Australia Embassy or Austrade

Don’t be intimidated by language or culture – more businesses lose money in the English-speaking markets of USA than they do in Asia (as the old saying goes “An exporter who doesn’t go to Asia for fear of losing his shirt, ends up losing his pants in America.”

But do your market research, due diligence and look at regulations regarding joint ventures and foreign ownership.

Check out for further details and special offers. The Airport Economist airs on Sky News Business, Friday at 630pm and Sundays at 7pmIf you miss the show you can catch up at

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