Pardon my French! Err Spanish!

It’s hard to believe that my career in international sales/marketing and export development is now in its 23rd year.  In high school I couldn’t have imagined what was ahead of me as, back then, the closest I had been to a foreign country was Key West.  In fact, when my high school guidance counselor recommended that I take a foreign language, I replied, “What for?  I’m going to be an electrical engineer!” 

Then, just 8 months before I graduated from UW-Milwaukee, a friend of mine from Spain was getting married to his long-time girlfriend from Appleton, which is where I met his sister Maria.  In addition to my 2 majors (in business, as, it turns out, engineering was not for me), I could have added a minor in Spanish during those remaining 8 months as I tried to learn as much of the language as I could in preparation for my post-college trip to Spain (to visit Maria of course).  The “trip” ended up lasting 2 and a half years during which time I became fluent in Spanish and started my career in international business, working for an exporter of gourmet seafood, primarily to Asia. 

A few months after our marriage, Maria and I decided to relocate back to the US where, I thought, my background and new language abilities would be in high demand.  Although it was relatively easy to find work in my hometown where the largest employer manufactured and sold consumer packaged goods worldwide, in retrospect I now see how lucky I was to end up working for this company.  With a combination of manufacturing facilities in the US, Europe and Asia and sales offices in 4 additional countries, the company was a true multinational.  Although the company was classified as large, having more than 2,000 employees world-wide, it was a privately-owned company with most of the upper management coming from the family of the founder who, I might add, were all very down to earth and accessible. 

Without a doubt the company was more advanced than your average US exporter, taking advantage of Duty Drawbacks and an IC-DISC as examples, however, there were still many things that the company could have done better.  The decision to create a separate international division at the company’s headquarters, which, unfortunately, only had responsibility over Asia (less China), Australia and the Americas, was very detrimental.  Putting each region into separate silos resulted in a hodgepodge of product offerings, branding inconsistencies, and, worst of all, new advancements and technologies created for a specific market were not shared across the organization. 

These silos also prevented the company from considering whether a Foreign Trade Zone Subzone would be beneficial, which could have lowered or even completely eliminated the tariffs paid on the imported components and material that went into product sold both international and domestically.  Tariff engineering was not thought necessary nor did it occur to anyone to calculate the landed cost of the products sold into different markets to formulate pricing strategies to maximize profits.  With multiple wholly-owned subsidiaries, it was also a mistake not to have implemented an international tax strategy to determine where to park the company’s IP and other assets as well as to adopt international transfer pricing strategies amongst the entities. 

On the bright side, working in this environment forced me to become a “jack of all trades,” so to speak, broadening my international experience thus far.  As Maria’s burgeoning career in commercial law took us to Chicago, I was surprised by the lack of job openings in international sales and marketing, even in a market as large as Chicago. 

After a few more years working in the private sector, in 2007 I transitioned to export development, joining the Illinois Small Business Development Center network.  I soon realized why so few international positions were being offered as, the more companies I worked with, a pattern began to emerge.  The term “accidental exporter” describes the bulk of the companies that only export to 1 or 2 markets who, after receiving a few, unsolicited orders from abroad, fail to proactively grow into new international markets, even when they have proof that their product or service is indeed exportable.   

A smaller number of companies, however, reminded me of my home-town employer, where silos and a lack of institutional knowledge prevented them from exporting to their full potential.  These companies believe that they know everything there is to know when, in fact, I’ve not met a single company since 2007 that was aware of all of the local, state and federal trade resources and programs available to them, let alone did their homework to determine the true benefits of each.  ¡Aún no me lo puedo creer!

Ironically, the one person in a company that, in general, I find the most receptive to discussing the trade programs and resources is the CFO who, for obvious reasons, cares deeply about the top and bottom lines in both the short and the long term.  In addition, most CFO’s don’t get defensive if I bring up a program that they are not familiar with and, most importantly, their rank allows them to assemble and motivate a team to study the project and, if deemed beneficial, to direct the team to implementation. 

Regardless of who I first meet with, the goal is always the same, to understand the company’s current situation, objectives and most importantly, the willingness of the company to take advantage of the many opportunities international markets represent.  The Wisconsin SBDC Network’s Go Global Initiative was created to guide manufacturers and service providers alike, whether new-to-export or experienced, to leverage these resources.  Contact me to learn more: