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Tampa attorney Jason Liu bridges gap between Asian investors and American opportunities

When Jason Liu was 14, his parents relocated his family from Taiwan to Tampa, bought a golf equipment maker here and settled down.

Eighteen years later, Liu has made a career out of replicating his family's entrepreneurial adventure for other Asians.

As a lawyer at Fowler White Boggs in downtown Tampa, Liu acts as a matchmaker/translator/peacekeeper between cash-rich Asian investors and owners of Florida businesses on the market.

Being fluent in Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese helps him bridge a language and cultural gap.

"Some of the clients are Americans dealing with Asian issues and Asians dealing with American issues," he said. "The missing, common link is they're all trying to figure out what the other is trying to say, and they just don't get it."

Liu, 32, recently chatted about some common cultural miscues, his own delayed path to citizenship and why so many of his Asian clients cherish their anonymity.

How did your family wind up in Tampa?

I was born in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. My parents owned a manufacturing business. They were visiting their clients here in the U.S. … and ended up striking a deal to acquire the clients. They made the golf products overseas in Taiwan, so here it was more of a wholesale distribution business. As my parents have grown older, it's more of a retirement-type business.

Why did you become an attorney?

I was here on a student visa for a very long time. Part of the deal is I get to stay in this country as long as I'm in school, hence the reason I have so many degrees. I went to high school, college, got my MBA, got my law degree, got my tax LLN (a master's degree in taxation).

So when did you become a U.S. citizen?

It's kind of a funny thing. I was walking through the (University of) Miami Law School, passing by the dean's office, and someone was in there really upset, saying, "I was just told you can't be a lawyer if you're not a U.S. citizen." And I'm thinking, "Wait a minute. I'm two years into it. I'm in like 50 grand. Stop this thing if that's true."

I graduated with a permanent residency. I became a U.S. citizen after I became a lawyer. The federal judge I worked for in law school did the honor of swearing me in as a bar-licensed attorney first and then swore me in as a U.S. citizen. It was pretty special.

Did you come to Fowler White intending to use your multilingual background?

I started at the firm here with the intent to practice corporate transaction and tax law. … As I evolved, I looked for ways to leverage my background. The multiple language part came in handy when we had foreign clients looking to invest in the U.S.

What's driving Asian investment here?

Part of it is the EB-5 (employment-based visa) program. That brings in annually about $1 billion in capital from overseas, of which about 70 percent comes from Asia. There's a disproportionate number of Asian folks with lots of money to invest who are interested in diversifying and also looking for some certainties in an area where there are rules of law. The U.S. is attractive. The objection I always get is, "Why would people come here if the tax rate is so high?" And I say, "Well, overseas the tax rate is uncertain. It could be nothing; it could be 100 percent. The certainty is what's important to them."

Can you describe the EB-5 program?

EB-5 is a short-handed reference to employment-based visa, fifth category. If you invest a half-million dollars or $1 million and create a certain number of jobs, that's the quickest way to get your permanent residency, your green card. It took 17 years for me to become a U.S. citizen. This program allows you to get it in seven to eight months.

On the EB-5 program, they're here with the primary purpose of bringing the family over so the kids can be educated here. Sometimes, they bring a part of their business overseas here, or they set up a different company. But the primary focus is to have their kids educated here and to have some diversification.

How many companies have you helped?

Several dozen companies. And they're not located just here. We represent clients who are investing in business from coast to coast. Obviously, we're Florida-based, so we have more of an intimate connection to Florida-based businesses.

Which industries?

Travel and leisure. There's a mega travel and leisure company that does in the neighborhood of $70 million in revenue. Import/export companies. Asian people find business opportunity in a lot of different industries. … The more visible ones, obviously, where you see the Asian people are the Chinese restaurants.

There are some very significant-sized companies, and yet the people, if you happen to run across them, you would never know. They're very dressed down, very humble.

Can you name some specific business investments?

I probably have to be more generic. I checked with them, … and they wanted to keep it quiet.

Why is that?

Anonymity is important to them. Some of it has to do with their desire to protect their kids. They feel their kids' safety may be an issue. Maybe not so much here, but that's a mentality they brought over with them. So I respect their need for privacy, whether that is theoretical or real.

In our area, we have some very, very significant businesses that are Asian-owned, and you would never know because they're very good at making sure you don't know.

Beyond protecting their children, is their concern of a backlash over offshoring? That Americans may resent foreign-owned manufacturers distributing their products in the U.S. while the manufacturing is done overseas?

That's part of our clients' concern. They don't want to really get into the political spotlight and get highlighted as an example … that someone can basically (categorize) them as an offshore company taking jobs out of the United States. But in fact, when I look at one company I know in travel and leisure, they have over 400 employees, and other than a couple of senior management, they're mostly Americans.

What's your toughest challenge handling negotiations with parties from different cultural backgrounds?

The challenge to begin with is American people are much more direct. On a deal point, if they don't agree, they will just tell you and ask what your objections are. Whereas, speaking for the Asian business folks, they're much more subtle. They try to find a more mutually beneficial solution. It's not a hard-and-fast rule where we agree on this today and we're not going to change down the road. This is where American businesses struggle. They say, "On Page 6 of the contract, you said you're going to do this." And the Asian folks are more, "Well, under these economic circumstances, it's different today."

We rely more on contracts in the U.S., and overseas they rely more on the relationship. Asian folks are by nature not litigious.

Do similar issues crop up each time?

I wish I had a tape recorder. There are certain things I say over and over, year after year. Part of that has to do with the language barrier. Usually, there's about 60 percent or 70 percent that is accurately translated. And that 30 percent or so really messes up the meanings of what's trying to be conveyed. I'm the buffer, saying, "That's not exactly what he meant. That's not exactly what he said."

Any other differences to highlight?

Doing business in Asia is still a hands-on experience. The Western companies have gotten very comfortable with video conferencing, with teleconferencing. In Asia, it still requires a physical experience. At the end of the day, it's pretty universal that nothing beats having a meal with somebody and building a relationship. In the Asian culture, that's often more important than sometimes the Western companies realize.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at jharrington@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8242.

Tampa attorney Jason Liu bridges gap between Asian investors and American opportunities 03/24/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 24, 2012 4:31am]

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