News

Local opportunity knocking in China

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

The connection between Federal Way and Beijing might seem fuzzy at first glance, but with the 2008 Olympics on the horizon, local businesses might have a chance to compete.

Beijing is using the Olympics as a launching point for a modernization of the whole city, said Patrick Doherty, Federal Way’s deputy director of community development for economic development.

Although contracts for big things, like stadiums and subways, were awarded long ago, all the secondary projects have yet to bid. Beijing is going to need architects, designers, engineers, legal experts, financing firms and other services ancillary to the actual construction that will happen over the next few years, Doherty said.

Meanwhile, business development offices in Seattle stand ready to assist local business owners looking to break into the international market.

“If we have to look beyond the country to have markets, hey, why not?” Doherty said.

The state Department of Trade and Economic Development’s international trade division has people in Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul and Taiwan, and in Europe and Mexico.

Kathleen Sebastian, research and special projects manager for the division, said business development managers have portfolios for their specialty industries that they use to connect Washington business owners with contacts overseas.

Business owners interested in exporting goods or services can contact a business development manager. The manager meets with the owners to get an idea of what they want to accomplish.

“Sometimes that’s all companies will want –– some advice,” Sebastian said, though more help is available and the division’s services are free.

The next step for the business development manager is to contact someone in one of the overseas offices. Those overseas managers can provide the business owner with a variety of services, like a list of potential distributors or people who might be interested in a joint venture. If a business owner is planning a trip and wants to meet people and network, the business development managers here and overseas can help orchestrate that, too.

The overseas staff are a critical component to making the division’s work valuable to business owners, Sebastian said.

“We’re not just here saying, ‘Do this, do this, do this,’” she said. “We actually have people on the ground in eight locations working day-to-day with the overseas business community. They can tap into the local knowledge to find the best business partner.

“You can’t just do it from here. You need someone there to look out for your interests.”

While the international trade division is available to anyone, Sebastian said some businesses have a better shot at being successful internationally than others. Her office posted a quiz on its Web site (www.exportwashington.com) to help business owners gauge whether they’re ready.

One criteria for success is an existing business with a good track record of sales locally and nationally, she said. It seems obvious, but some business owners want to shoot straight for the international market before testing their business’ viability at home.

“There is a little bit of a starry-eyed dream that you can just start international,” Sebastian said.

It’s important to work the kinks out of a business locally, without the added tangles of international financing and laws. It also helps to have had time to learn about the business’ strengths and weaknesses here before trying an international market, Sebastian explained.

“You want to show you can do it in the U.S.,” she said.

Going international “takes commitment from the highest level of management,” she said. It also takes money.

For example, sometimes quality-control issues are so different in other parts of the world, U.S. products must be modified to comply before they can be sold there. Marketing can be more expensive, too. Informational brochures or catalogues have to be translated and reprinted, and Web sites have to be rebuilt in the market country’s language.

And there are travel expenses. Sebastian said some business owners think the Internet has made business travel obsolete, but nothing could be further from the truth. Business people in other parts of the world frown on such impersonal business practice. It can be done, but it demonstrates “a lack of understanding for how the rest of the world prefers to work,” she said.

Still, while it sounds like only a Boeing or a Weyerhaeuser could do it, Sebastian said there are smaller industries the international trade division has connected with the global market, including information technology, electronics, medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, industrial machinery manufacturing and construction.

Opportunities already abound for Federal Way-area businesses –– engineering firm Berger ABAM has worked all over the world, Baden Sports has an office in Japan and Salmolux imports seafood from South America –– but with the 2008 Olympics coming up in Beijing, a window is sliding open for local companies interested in exporting their services.

In fact, the director of the state international trade division’s China program was there earlier this year promoting Washington companies’ abilities to provide services and products to the Olympics, Sebastian said.

“The infrastructure projects to prepare for the Olympics are absolutely huge,” she said.

Sebastian also pointed out the Winter Olympics will be in Vancouver, B.C. in 2010, which also will provide international trade opportunities for Washington companies.

The international trade division’s mission is to help Washington businesses and industry succeed overseas. “We promote economic prosperity by helping companies export,” she said. “We are available here to help any industry. We open our doors to everyone. We want everyone to succeed.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com.

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