We feel like there’s great synergy between the agenda of the business council, the agenda of APEC and the US priorities for the 2011 year.

As the new chief of APEC’s Business Advisory Council (ABAC) and one of the Asia-Pacific’s most senior businesswomen, Deb Henretta has no time to vacillate. She plans to hit the ground running in 2011, with her sights set on achieving significant progress in advancing the needs of business within APEC.

Ms Henretta, group president for Procter & Gamble in Asia, said the business community’s agenda was finalized at ABAC’s final gathering for 2010, hosted by Japan in November in the southern port city of Yokohama, just before the region’s leaders also gathered for their annual meeting.

“That was really exciting because it gives you a real jump start for 2011,” Ms Henretta said of ABAC’s plans for this year.

Formed by APEC leaders in 1995, ABAC gives the private sector a voice within APEC. Leaders select up to three business leaders to serve with ABAC, which provides advice and information on business needs and concerns to all levels of APEC, from senior government officials through to the leaders themselves. Ms Henretta was appointed to chair the group for the next 12 months, the first woman to hold the position, during the US host year in 2011.

She said she plans to significantly step up ABAC’s interaction with the separate business communities in each of APEC’s 21 economies and within the APEC organization itself.

“One of the unique things about the business council is that we have a private sector seat at the table with APEC. And that seat goes all the way up from the working groups to the leaders. And one of the things we want to do is see that interaction at all of those points expand and be of a higher quality.”

The interaction includes promoting ABAC’s three priorities for 2011, the first of which is closer regional economic integration. This primarily means advocating the formation of a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). Last November leaders agreed to take concrete steps towards realizing an FTAAP, with APEC to play a key role as an incubator for its development in the form of a comprehensive and high-quality region-wide free trade agreement.

“Our dream is to get to that free and open trade area of the Asia-Pacific,” she said.

“This is something that we started pushing in a big way about 18 months ago and we really feel that the way for all economies to grow and prosper is to open up those trade barriers,” she said.

Ms Henretta said ABAC supports an FTAAP in the form of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which grabbed media headlines in 2010 as more economies agreed to take part in negotiations to sign up, including the United States. Nine APEC members are now involved, with Japan announcing in November that it will hold consultations on the possibility of also joining. However she stresses that ABAC supports any model such as ASEAN+ that makes progress towards an FTAAP.

“The one that seems to generate a lot of excitement and broad scale interest on the business council is the TPP, but we do see it as one possible pathway to FTAAP because there are others. And any of these trade agreements that push towards FTAAP is a positive development.

“We are focusing on TPP because it seems to have the most broad scale interest and is also being conceived of and negotiated as a very high quality trade agreement, and is pushing at what we think will prove to be the fundamentals of 21st century agreements.

“It’s not trying to create an agreement that made sense for the world 10 years ago, or even a pre-economic crisis model,” she continued. “We see the TPP as being worked and the components of it being negotiated in a way that we think is truly befitting of a 21st century agreement.”

ABAC also plans to increase promotion of small and medium sized enterprises, which Ms Henretta said are keys to developing economies achieving economic growth. SMEs are also crucial to fostering a diversity of businesses in all types of economies as well as increasing the participation of women in the workforce.

“We see SMEs as a powerful driver for all economies whether you are talking about large economies or small economies, developed or developing,” she said.

“Many of the largest and most significant businesses and industry sectors have started as SMEs.”

ABAC’s third priority is to continue its efforts to promote sustainable development in the region, including food and energy security. As APEC hosts this year, the United States also plans to focus on green growth.

“We feel like there’s great synergy between the agenda of the business council, the agenda of APEC and the US priorities for the 2011 year,” Ms Henretta said.

“And I think anytime we can get aligned on priorities, better things happen, because we are working in the same direction.”

Ms Henretta worked in the United States for almost 20 years at Procter and Gamble before moving to Singapore five years ago. She plans to use her career experience to her advantage as she works with business leaders from throughout the region.

“I have been able to see business from the perspective of the West and the East, developed and emerging economies and I think that is hugely helpful because when you look at the 21 economies that are in APEC, I have experience with almost all of those economies.”

Ms Henretta, who is regularly included in Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s Most Powerful Women, also said she plans to bring energy and passion to her new role. “Sometimes these international organizations can benefit from new energy and creating a bit of excitement about the work being done.”