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alexandra seno

In 1994, architect Roger Poulin and his wife set out from Toronto to travel through Asia.

After visiting China, India and Southeast Asia, they decided they liked Malaysia best and ended up moving there. "It was the best transition from Canada and a lot of good things were going on," Mr. Poulin says.

Sixteen years later, he's CEO of Visionary Zone, the prominent Kuala Lumpur-based architectural support services practice he founded.

"The lifestyle is good, the opportunities are good. For doing business, it is the best place to be. The staff are technically good and English is widely spoken because of the country's British history.

"Malaysia is also competitive because the cost of living is much lower than Hong Kong, Singapore and even Thailand."

When he first arrived, Mr. Poulin joined a Malaysian infrastructure company, working on construction of the new Kuala Lumpur airport. He struck out on his own eight years ago with Visionary Zone, which provides computerized 3-D rendering and documentation for architecture firms.

"The Malaysian economy is mature and it has grown a lot for 30 years now," says Mr. Poulin, who also serves as president of the Malaysia Canada Business Council. "People who bought homes 20 to 30 years ago are now wanting a new home but demanding more. Highways and roads need to be replaced."

At Visionary Zone, local projects account for 60 per cent of its business, with the rest coming from Canada. As elections in Malaysia loom, the domestic business community is cautious and the economy is less buoyant than in previous months. Things are expected to pick up after the dust settles.

As a small enterprise – Mr. Poulin has eight employees – reliant on business in Malaysia and Canada, marketing is crucial, especially when clients are thousands of kilometres away. He spends four to six weeks a year in Canada on networking, marketing and signing up projects.

"It takes a lot of work. My ambition is to tap into the North American market, perhaps as part of a Canadian group. That would give us one heck of an opportunity.

"We could do projects from Canada and also take advantage of being in a region growing by leaps and bounds with places like Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, where you have to be here in Asia to (participate in) the opportunities."

What Mr. Poulin has in mind is a different kind of outsourcing. Part of it involves taking on projects from North America – in Malaysia, he can do things for half of what it costs in Canada. But the most potential lies in winning new business from Asia for a Canadian-based architecture practice and sending the bulk of the work back home, keeping and creating jobs in Canada.

The proposition has caught the attention of North American companies, including one Mr. Poulin says would like to merge with Visionary Zone. It could allow for significant tax advantages.

Mr. Poulin, who grew up in Montreal, is a keen golfer and he has taken advantage of Malaysia's year-round balmy weather to indulge in his passion. His home in Kuala Lumpur borders on a golf course. But he's nowhere near retirement.

"The outlook for this business is good," the Carleton University-trained architect points out.

Special to the Globe and Mail

Alexandra A. Seno has written about economics and business trends in Asia since 1994. She is a regular contributor to Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune and The Wall Street Journal Asia. She lives in Hong Kong.

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