A native of Kamloops in British Columbia, Canada, Brian Hockertz studied Chinese language in Nanjing and came to Taiwan in 1990 as an education advisor with the Canadian Trade Office. In 1995, he founded OH! Study to help Taiwanese students find educational opportunities overseas.
From a two-person company, OH! Study has grown to more than 40 personnel working out of offices in four Taiwan cities. Over the years, it has assisted over 40,000 Taiwanese students go overseas to pursue their studies. The group also consists of the OH! Ya Travel Agency, OH! Study Immigration Agency, OH! Mazon online shopping platform, and OH! Study International Education Expo.
What first got you interested in Asia?
I was studying political economic reform in university on how socialist demand economies were implementing market reforms. China’s model intrigued me, and I was awarded a scholarship to go to China to learn Chinese and conduct research in my area of interest. By the end of the first year, China was engulfed in protests leading up to the June 4 Tiananmen incident. We were evacuated and I eventually made my way to Taiwan.
What was it like studying Chinese in those early days?
In the late 1980s, Chinese instruction for non-native speakers was still in its infancy in China, with emphasis placed on rote memorization. I ended up hiring three private teachers (for Business Chinese, Pronunciation, and Classical Chinese), as private tutorials were inexpensive in those days. I progressed well enough that I was permitted to take Chinese-language graduate-level courses at Nanjing University.
You first came to Taiwan working for the Canadian government. Was that a valuable experience?
It was the pivotal experience in my professional development. First, my colleagues and supervisors were extremely talented, and I learned an enormous amount building the foundation of my future career successes. Second, as the office was relatively small in those days, I had many opportunities to undertake work that would usually be given to people with more seniority than what I possessed. This allowed me to be exposed to a variety of different challenges and leapfrog in my professional learning.
What led to your decision to start your own business? How has the nature of your business changed over time?
At the time, I felt I could provide students and parents better services by establishing my own business rather than staying in the government. When I started my business almost 25 years ago, there was a lack of high-level professionalism in the industry, but there was a huge demand for students wanting to go overseas to study. At that time there was a less than 40% pass rate for students taking the university entrance exam compared with an almost 100% pass rate these days. I was lucky to start my business when I did, as these favorable factors no longer exist.
What’s been the biggest challenge you faced in your career and how did you deal with it?
When I started my company, it only had three people and not much capital, but a lot of ideas. A major problem we faced was that our competitors copied our ideas and materials, sometimes shamelessly, but we didn’t have the resources to take legal action. The only option we had was to innovate each new season, and as a result, our competitors were only as good as our last season’s promotions. This drive to innovate has remained within our company’s DNA to this day.
Do you have a particular style as a manager? What do you consider to be your main strengths? Any weaknesses?
When new staff join our team, I tend to micromanage – you could call it an extended training period. Once staff show they understand their job and the business culture within our company, I let them manage their own time and work duties. Most of my time is spent doing strategic planning, R&D, leadership, and mentoring.
What have you found to be the most significant characteristics of the business environment in Taiwan? What are the main ways in which it differs from other markets?
Taiwan moves quickly and adapts to change well. Little time is spent crying over spilt milk or trying to preserve archaic and outdated business models (particularly among SMEs).
How have students and the educational process changed in Taiwan during your time here?
In the past, marketing to attract students to go overseas was based on appealing to scarcity (“Oh, you didn’t get in? Well I have a solution for you”). Now it is based on quality and outcomes (“Oh, you got in – well, so did everyone else. What are your future career options? I have a solution for you”).
Also, new pseudo-education options have popped up in recent years, such as low-level work-holiday programs and short-term university exchange programs, which could be described as academic tourism. While these options do give students the chance to go abroad and experience different cultures and languages, they provide little in the way of rigorous academic training, which in the long run will affect the quality of the Taiwan labor pool.
If you had one piece of advice for young people here preparing for their education and vocational careers, what would it be?
First, follow your passion. If you aren’t truly interested in the program you are planning to take, you will be mediocre, at best. Second, research career options on your own or with the assistance of professionals in tune with current and future job trends. Many well-intentioned relatives, teachers, and school counselors have a perspective suited for when they went to school, and in terms of the current job market, it would not be in the least bit useful.
What are the main pluses and minuses of leading an expat life?
I am fortunate that I speak Chinese and make an effort to understand and assimilate into the local culture. This makes my experience in Taiwan rich and rewarding. The Taiwanese are some of the kindest and most hospitable people on the face of the earth, and it makes living here quite enjoyable.
The public services and infrastructure have developed so much over the past 30 years I have been here. They are now on par with or surpass most places I know.
On the minus side…I can’t really think of anything to note. Maybe the heat and humidity in the summer.
How do you like to spend your leisure time? What do you find is the best way to get “recharged?”
Exercise, meditation, reading/learning, getting together with friends, hiking in the mountains, and learning more vegan recipes.