Burning Bright

After two decades at the top of the industry, Diageo’s corporate relations chief Richard Burn is still shaping the public affairs landscape in Asia Pacific 

If a guide to the top influencers in Asia’s PA industry was produced today, Diageo’s regional corporate relations director, Richard Burn would make the grade.  A onetime civil servant, turned adviser to former British prime minister Sir Edward Heath.  Burn went on to launch and sell his own agency, before migrating to one of the region’s top in-house corporate affairs roles.

Reflecting on his career he has witnessed increased sophistication in the markets of Asia Pacific. He tells PublicAffairsAsia: “When I first got involved with business in Asia in the early 1990s people were becoming aware of the enormous opportunities and the difficulties of setting up
businesses due to market restrictions. Many businesses either had representative offices with relatively junior people or people in pre-retirement posts. These people were meant to build relationships but they didn’t have the access,” he says.

“When I started consulting the desired outcome was often to get the chairman or chief executive to meet with a vice premier or a senior official in China. In those days it was relatively easy. But since then markets have grown and market liberalisation has occurred. In China many companies now have senior people who are in place managing relationships full time.  Today, the chairmen and chief executives come in two or three times a year but now the people on the ground have the relationships in place.”

Liberalised and transparent

He dismisses the notion that Asia, which has emulated the West by embarking on a legislative and regulatory spree in recent years, has become a more difficult arena. “Most MNCs have strict legal and compliance cultures, so they welcome greater transparency and regulatory clarity,” says Burn. “Market liberalisation has resulted in more regulation, which has made the operating environment more complicated but also fairer and more transparent.”

But the Diageo corporate affairs chief, who is often pitted against well-connected powerful local brands, concedes that conditions have “become tougher because of more competition, so it’s more difficult to grow and succeed today than it was for those who got into the markets 20 or 30 years ago”.

The most fundamental shift, Burn believes, is the increased onus on corporations “to be good corporate citizens” – something Diageo commits money and leadership time to. “Since the emergence of CSR it has gone from a tick box exercise to becoming a much more substantial commitment on the part of business in response to the expectations of a wide range of stakeholders,” he says. Put bluntly, companies “want to be seen to be doing good in the communities in which they sell their products”.

And despite the apparent difficulties of operating in countries considered “emerging markets” Burn contends that “in some ways it is more difficult in developed economies where you have more NGOs and critics of business”.

Despite the increasing sophistication of the corporate affairs function in Asia Pacific, Burn believes “relationships are still very important”. In recent years, Diageo has been involved in complex negotiations to take a majority stake in one of China’s biggest spirits companies, Sichuan Chengdu Quanxng Group. “I still go and see our Chinese partners because I was there from the beginning and we have built up a close relationship and that continues to develop.  Relationships are critical to the on-going management of your business.  If you’re dealing with local partners it’s important to maintain and build your relationships as you shepherd your business forward. Relationships remain important in Asian culture,” he adds.

After graduating from Oxford with a Classics degree, Burn cut his teeth in the Hong Kong civil service before going on to become political secretary to Sir Edward Heath. At that time the former prime minister of the UK was a frequent visitor to mainland China. This background is, says Burn, a textbook training ground for corporate affairs. “Many senior public policy practitioners that I know have backgrounds as civil servants. When I was a consultant, very often British businessmen that I met didn’t really understand the role and limitations of government in their own country let alone foreign governments.  If you have experience of business and government it helps to understand the other person’s point of view.”

In Asia, Burn notes that there is “much closer interchange between business and government”.  “The concept of conflict of interest isn’t as well understood in many of these markets as it is in the West.  You have to be very careful that your partners understand your governance and compliance  obligations,” he warns. There is no substitute to “being patient and explaining the regulatory and governance requirements of your home market, as well as understanding the culture and regulatory environment that supports you in the markets you invest in”.

Burn also believes that MNCs making a play into Asian markets should ensure they are effectively engaged with the diplomatic missions and trade bodies of their home nation. He says: “I think that the UK Foreign Office and UK Trade and Investment are superb. They are probably the best at what they do in the world. This particular government has made supporting business a strategic priority. William Hague as Foreign Secretary has made it clear what he expects from diplomats around the world and that supporting business is  one of their top priorities.  The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has appointed several business ambassadors, there are more ministerial visits and trade missions than before.  This government is more supportive of British business abroad than any previous government I can think of.”

Levelling the playing field

Turning to the approach he takes to his own role, Burn has one central objective: “My job is to make sure that there’s a level playing field between our business and any domestic or competitor business in the market which is trying to sell similar products. Issues around our reputation have also become much more important over the last five years, which is why we work with governments on campaigns to reduce alcohol abuse or with traffic police  to combat drunk driving.”

This means Burn is effectively spending half his time “dealing with regulatory matters and public policy issues…. and the other half on reputation and media engagement”.  “We have recently launched a major regional CSR campaign to support women’s empowerment, which has been very well received by employees,” he adds.

Burn believes that his breadth of experience and his awareness of Asia’s political systems are vital. “Having lived in Asia for so long I have a good understanding of Asian culture and people. I have spent a lot of time in most Asian countries where we have significant markets over the years. Of course, I still have a huge amount to learn. But I have been around long enough to know some of the decision-makers or to know someone who knows the decision makers. I think I also have a patient temperament which is important in building up relationships with business partners and other stakeholders,” he adds.

As a Classics scholar, Burn tries to ensure he is “analytical” but walks a fine line between this and going into “too much detail” with his teams. “I think having been around the nexus of business and politics for quite some time I understand the need to find solutions that work for all parties involved with a problem,” he says.

Burn was part of the duo which built Batey Burn, an advisory firm which specialised in assisting foreign companies investing in China. The company was subsequently sold to APCO, of which Burn became Asia Pacific Managing Director. This experience gives Burn an understanding of how the industry works at a macro-level. “I am now dealing with one company and one industry.

So I am not running round dealing with lots of  different clients in lots of different sectors. I can focus on one industry.  When you are a consultant you are providing outside support and advice to a client.  I very much see myself as part of the Diageo Asia Pacific executive team with shared responsibility for the company’s P&L.  We are not seen as internal consultants but as contributors to the company bottom line.  If we succeed  – for example, by changing an unfair tax  – we can help the business succeed,” he adds.

Like many senior industry figures, Burn can be traced around the region – and beyond – by a regular series of “out of office” messages. But he believes that “having the capacity to switch-off” is important. “I enjoy travelling, I am interested in art and have collected paintings from around the region. I spend time visiting galleries and museums. I have always been interested nature and wildlife conservation and visit places walking and bird watching away from big cities,” he says.
And he adds it would be impossible to work at his level, and at that intensity, if he was prone to worrying about “the issues that pop up everywhere” within a company as large as Diageo. “I don’t have problems sleeping at night,” he says.

As a veteran of the industry, he is well known to many: having been a client, colleague or friend of countless senior practitioners. He hopes they see him as someone who stands by his decisions – and his staff. “I have a very good team. My strategy is to hire the best and brightest people I can find and then let them get on with the job.  I try and support them and make sure they succeed by guiding but not micro-managing them and  then providing honest feedback to help them improve.  My team has grown hugely and I  hope  they would say I was a supportive boss and that when things go well they get the credit and when things go wrong I take responsibility.”

But responding to the classic end of the interview question of “what’s next?” Burn gives little away – which in part underlines how suited he is to his current role. “I have a fantastic job working for a great company and I don’t see myself working in corporate affairs for another firm. I think if did move on it would be to do something completely different,” he concludes.

Richard Burn was in conversation with PublicAffairsAsia’s Executive Director Craig Hoy

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