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Export experts: Make friends, learn the law, use government


INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Right now, trade news may be dominated by tariffs and shake-ups in U.S. pacts with other countries, but for exporters and importers, the daily business of international commerce is still going strong.

Indy Chamber hosted its annual World Trade Day earlier this month, the programming offers how-tos and provides information on regulations for pursuing overseas customers or suppliers.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration (ITA), global exports from more than 8,500 Indiana companies support more than 190,500 jobs, and 85 percent of exporters are small or mid-sized companies. The state exported $34.7 billion in goods in 2016.

One beneficial program businesses wishing to export their goods – including agribusinesses – don’t always know about is the ITA’s Gold Key Service. Oleg Gostomelsky, managing director of European Operations for Indiana’s Telamon Corp., praised it for providing access to foreign leaders in their own countries.

Gold Key has a fee structure under which DOC U.S. embassy contacts in the target country will set up meetings with officials and business leaders who may be interested in working with the U.S. exporter. He said this creates immediate credibility locally, which is valuable for small and mid-size businesses that can’t afford their own staff to cultivate advance contacts overseas.

“When the U.S. embassy calls, most people pick up the phone,” he explained. “We’re still the 800-pound gorilla in the room” in world trade.

The Gold Key Service can also help a U.S. business market its product in its target market by calling press conferences for local media, and by supplying the embassy’s ambassador to attend a grand opening or other special event on the American business’ behalf.

Gostomelsky noted in the United States, it’s not unusual for people to know local elected officials or even meet state and federal officeholders. But in more authoritarian nations, where the citizen is further removed from those in charge, an ambassador is an important figure – and to have one at its event makes a business look important.

Robert Huang, leader of global sales and marketing with Delta Faucet Co. – and who co-hosted this talk at the Trade Day with Gostomelsky – attested to Gold Key’s aid. He said the U.S. embassy in Indonesia helped him get in front of a local property group so he could pitch (and ultimately sell) Delta products.

One thing Gostomelsky spoke extensively about is the importance of establishing personal relationships with contacts in a region. The fact is, in many countries there’s still great importance placed on such interactions.

Americans, he said, are largely a “transactional business culture;” if we need to buy or sell something, it’s not uncommon to pick up the phone or email the other person. Large business deals can be transacted without two people ever meeting or knowing much about each other. But this isn’t the case everywhere.

In these places, Gostomelsky explained business owners and managers often want to meet the people they will be doing business with, in person. It may take a while, but it may pay off in a profitable relationship.

“Once you do get in, once they do become a customer, you’re a friend, not just a supplier,” he noted.

Huang humorously noted there can be a physically demanding side to gaining customers. He courted one potential export client whose executives insisted on an all-nighter of a meal and drinks, then karaoke and drinks, followed by going out for more drinking and snacks. And, of course, conversation.

He said this was sort of a test – the idea being, if Huang was committed enough to weather the discomfort of so much drink, late hours, and socializing, he would be committed to being a “strong” business partner too.

When Gostomelsky calls an established export client now, the conversation doesn’t start with business – they spend a while catching up on each other’s lives and families. This part of the conversation can last longer than the business.

But he also finds out if another supplier is trying to come into the market or draw business away from Telamon, or if a change in politics or regulations might impact its operations, so the company can plan ahead.

Exporter resources

The ITA’s promotion arm is the U.S. Commercial Service (which includes Gold Key), whose services can be accessed online at

“People say how inefficient the U.S. government is; I’m not saying they’re right or wrong,” Gostomelsky observed, “all I’m saying is they’ve never dealt with (the more bureaucratic governments of) Russia, China, and Ukraine.”

Staff of foreign embassy and consulate offices here in the U.S. can also help an exporter learn about the regulations and costs of doing business in their home countries. “Your first call should be the Department of Commerce,” he said.

Agribusinesses may find more resources in USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service and Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service offices, and, in Indiana, its State Department of Agriculture and Economic Development Director Connie Neininger (317-517-7529).

Another piece of advice Huang offered is to look for trade shows and event-marketing opportunities, to set up at here and overseas. It’s a way to shake hands, meet those making purchasing decisions, hand out your card, and explain or demo your product.

“However famous you are in America, you can be a no-name in another country,” he said, recalling shows where nobody had yet heard of Delta faucets.

He also said having your own company website is a good way to pick up some clients – or at least a place to direct people you make contact with to learn more about your product.

Gostomelsky advises agribusinesses to participate in trade missions with the state or USDA when possible. He also said if you want to take your business global, it’s wise to assign the task of pursuing the target market to someone in your operation as part of their job. It doesn’t have to be the top person; sometimes it’s better if not, in fact.

“If you’re going to (plan to export), you can’t do it partway,” he said, or treat it like a side-task.

That job won’t be easy. In addition to learning about local laws and making contacts, the employee needs to learn about the politics there, what constitutes “corruption” (since it may be different than in the U.S.), become aware of local customs and holidays, and learn myriad other factors that can affect how fast exporting can start or how long it could last.

“Those are things that can trip you up,” Gostomelsky noted.