What we North Americans called "Asia" is a huge area. Extending from frigid areas in northern China to the sweltering tropics, Asia is a sort of ripe market for EIFS. I say "sort of" because some areas (Vietnam, for example) are still rebuilding their infrastructure, while other economies, such as China, are very much "on the roll" in major metro areas. EIFS is not nearly so much of a mainstream product in Asia as it is in North America and Europe but is steadily increasing in its use. For those contractors, distributors and manufacturer eying Asia as a potential area for business, here are some basic things that need to be known, based on more than a decade of working with EIFS in that country.

The original purpose of EIFS, as developed in Europe, was as an insulation system. The climate in Asia varies a great deal. Some areas need insulation, while others should have it but don't want it. What do I mean by this? Simply, that it's hard to have a good life if freezing (EIFS is more popular in northern Asia) but being hot is normal in some parts of the world. Air conditioning is not prevalent in many tropical parts of Asia, so people are used to being hot. Thus, they do not need insulation or at least are unwilling to pay for it. Thus, this selling point of EIFS is moot.

To the east

Many major Asian cities are in a growth mode. This includes the increased use of cars. Cars emit pollution and in some cities the pollution is incredible. EIFS does not fare well in such environments; it gets dirty fast and looks bad. Also, the dirt is not easy to remove from EIFS and thus the ugliness is permanent. This is why many of the tall white buildings one will see in urban photos are white. Hong Kong is a good example. Many of these buildings are actually white ceramic tile glued directly to block and concrete. Tile can be steam cleaned and pollution does not stick well to such slick surfaces.

We North Americans take the ready availability of studs, sheathing and quality foam insulation for granted. In some countries such materials simply do not exist. This makes them expensive, as they must be imported. Although there is great interest in lightweight stud wall construction, this technique is difficult to execute on a widespread basis, as neither the proper materials nor the ability to build with them are available.

From a business management standpoint, if considering the Asian market, there are some basic things that need to be known. First, many North America companies are not well versed in international trade issues; all their business activities are domestic. Basic problem areas include language barriers, letters of credit, freight forwarding and all manner of trans-ocean, everyday-business transactions. One will definitely want to have staff who can properly deal with such issues. Even such basic issues as global politics and exchange rates need to be well understood in order to make a buck. As an example: I was stuck in Manila for 10 days when Marco left the country in the '80s and was unable to do anything because martial law had been declared. I could not conduct any business. The whole country was "on standby" after the regime changed, because the economy was dead, in terms of growth, for months. This cost my then-employer a small fortune in wasted time and several shipments "disappeared" during the process.

Different values

One of the most popular selling points of EIFS in North America is "looks." Looks are not so important in Asia. Living more modestly than us, functionality and long-term durability are important. Fancy foam shapes aren't of much interest but price is. In a sense, much Asian architecture using EIFS is more like that of Europe than North American: simple, clean and unadorned.

In many Asian countries, labor is cheap. Thus, the ratio of material cost to labor is much higher than in North America. This explains why quoting prices on EIFS materials can get so sticky: The only place they can move much on pricing is with the cost of the products, not the labor, to install them.

Building codes in Asia vary from rigid, federally approached, conservative laws, to virtually non-existent. However, in crowded metro areas, codes tend to be conservative and the foam insulation sometimes raises safety concerns for tall buildings. An example is Japan, where cities like Tokyo are wall-to-wall buildings and the codes are restrictive.

Most of Asia is neutral to positive about North American business activity within their country (clearly, North Korea is an exception). However, this does not mean that the borders are wide open to trade. Many countries are quite protective about their internal businesses. Often, this takes the form of tariffs or draconian regulations. It can also take more subtle forms, such as the unwritten need to have a native business partner, or a lukewarm reception to marketing efforts by Anglo salespeople.

One of the most obvious problems I've seen is the tremendous bravado of North American companies in Asia. This takes two forms and must be dealt with.

The first form is the "know-it-all" approach of having something secret and special. There's no such thing as this regarding EIFS. They know what it is and there's not much that's secret about what it's made of and how it's used; the Internet is available even in remote jungles. Some Asian countries already have their own EIFS industries, while others already have North American EIFS production facilities in-country.

From a contracting standpoint, there are some basic differences between Asia and North America. One is that there are more than a few languages spoken on the same job site. One may not be able to even recognize what these languages are. Interpreters are available, however. Also, in some areas, OSHA is unheard of. In major metro areas it is not unusual to see bamboo scaffolds 10 stories high that are held together with coat hanger wire. In some areas, one will also find working conditions pretty primitive: freezing or broiling is not uncommon, nor are monsoons. Likewise, sometimes work is done seven days a week (Buddhists don't go to "church" on any specific day).

Business ethics vary from extremely civilized to outright extortion. You'll definitely want someone who works for you, who knows how the system works, to keep you out of jail. American rights don't apply outside our border (go rent the film "Midnight Express" for a taste of some foreign jails). Generally, like anywhere else, though, plain honest dealing works just fine. This includes being on time and at the agreed price. A lot of Asians are very straight talkers and their eyes will glaze over when the talk turns to slick sales drivel.

The second is the use of North American style construction details in promotional activities. Put simply, Asians do not "build," in general, the way we do. Showing wood frame residential details using North American-style windows and caulking names they've never heard of brands the promoter as naïve and insensitive. This includes such obvious faux-pas as using American sales literature in English (even though English is widely spoken, especially in technical communities such as the construction industry), and having packaged goods in English that the average field worker cannot read.

On the positive side, I have found that there is tremendous interest in EIFS, and a real willingness to try to design and install EIFS properly. The construction community in main parts of Asia is hungry for information and most receptive to patient, mature leadership. Also, since labor rates are so low in some areas, time can be taken insisting for good craftsmanship; it's not like the western world is the only place that understands plastering.

In summary, the Asian market is for North American companies that have a long-term view of things. This means resources and patience. The resources involve the money to go over there and stake a claim. This is no small matter; it can be very expensive. The other is the patience to learn and deal with people and cultures in a new way. Many of the societies are literally thousands of years old and many Asian companies are looking for long-term partners. Thus, some time is needed to get to know each other.

The biggest single mistake I've seen by North American entrepreneurs in Asia is the desire to wrap up a big deal and then leave. While we are used to a highly mobile, quick-deal business environment in North America, this generally does not impress anyone overseas. The reward for commitment and patience can be many fold, including being "first in" to some still-virgin market, and the personal satisfaction of working in a part of the world that is almost as modern (more modern in some areas) than us, yet deliciously different.