Thinking Global

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on September 14, 2003.

The 114,000 square feet of greenhouse space is in place. Some 30,000 orchid seedlings have been shipped in, and the state-of-the-art shading system is set up, ready to protect the fledgling plants from the harsh sun.

For Jaxma Greenhouse founder Shung Kim, the only remaining question is this: Where can he find a City of Jacksonville flag?

The greenhouse already has a United States and a Korean flag flapping away by the property entrance. And because the company is partially owned by farmers in the Korean town of Masan, there's a flag from that city flying by the front door.

But for Kim, the greenhouse is more than just a business. It's also a sign of Jacksonville's interest in the rest of the world, in the economic possibilities made available through reaching out to other countries. "[Masan] wanted to have a greenhouse here so we can have economic exchange, economic development in both cities," said Kim, who has headed up Jacksonville's Sister City program with Masan for years. "We work together. It's the best way."

The First Coast is filled with such businesses, smaller and medium-sized companies with an international reach. Expanding into other countries � either as a place to sell things or as a source of products � isn't for everyone, but an increasing number of companies are discovering that you don't have to be big to be global.

"I think a lot of people realize that they'll not have a future trading potatoes with Palatka," said George Banks, head of the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission's International Development Commission. "International trade will be a big part of Jacksonville's future."

At its most basic level, importing can provide a cheaper source of raw material and supplies; exporting provides a larger customer base as well as helping to limit some market volatility. Just because people aren't buying widgets here, in essence, there can still be a demand for der widgeten or el widgetos elsewhere, evening out sales fluctuations and overcoming seasonal trend issues.

"If you're selling swimming pool equipment, you're going to have your season here in the hot months," said Martin Graham, AmSouth Bank's vice president of international banking. "In the cold months, why not start selling in the Southern Hemisphere?"

But finding markets or suppliers in other countries isn't necessarily as straightforward as expanding regionally or nationally. One main differences: International business tends to be more relationship-based, said several people involved in importing and exporting.

If you start shipping product to, say, South Carolina, it's reasonably easy to check up on your distributor. Dealing with day-long flights, language barriers and different times zones makes doing so internationally a bit more difficult.

"You have to build a relationship with who you're dealing with," said Karl Frisch, vice president of Beaver Street Fisheries. "You don't do business with customers; you do business with friends."

One way to deal with that uncertainty and begin the relationship-building process is through Enterprise Florida, which works with the Department of Commerce in setting up research trips to other countries. Business people here can sign up for one-on-one meetings with pre-screened distributors and sales agents, providing a higher level of comfort about the foreign business' veracity.

"The owner of a small- to medium-sized business doesn't have the time to verify all those issues," said John Freeman, trade development manager for World Trade Center Jacksonville, which helps market the trips. "It's not like selling to Georgia or Alabama."

Enterprise Florida also offers export assistance through offices in several foreign countries. Also, American embassies around the world have commercial officers, who are able to provide at least industry-level information to companies looking to enter those markets.

Other ways of researching foreign counterparts include private research reports from companies such as Dun & Bradstreet, limited information available through international bankers and country assessments provided by the Department of Commerce, said AmSouth's Graham.

Other advice if you're looking at the possibility of international trade:

� Make sure your finances are in order. Processing international payments adds a layer of complexity to transactions, so payments might not hit your bank account as quickly as you'd like. "International trade is a very cash-intensive business," said Jyoti Mujumdar, president of Resource Point Inc., a Jacksonville-based grocery exporter.

� Remember that services can be exported as well as products. Environmental engineering, business valuation and other such fields may find a warm reception in the rest of the world, said WTCJ's Freeman.

� Make sure your Web site is up to snuff. Just as savvy retail shoppers hit the Internet to find the best price, so do businesses around the world. "Medium-sized companies can do a lot more international trade today," said Terry Brown, president of ICS Logistics, which provides global stevedoring and refrigerated storage facilities in Jacksonville. "A lot of that's because of the Internet. It's easy to find suppliers."

� Visit target markets. Next time you're on vacation overseas, wander through the hardware stores and supermarkets, seeing what's in stock and what products are missing from their shelves. The lack of an item might mean there's no demand for it, or it might mean you're looking at a niche you can fill.

� Investigate insurance options. The federal government and several private firms offer accounts receivable insurance, designed to minimize the risk of non-payment. You also want to check out the various ways to make sure you're compensated for any shipments that go awry.

� Talk to the government. Locally, the city has a range of organizations, both private and public, that help people looking to enter foreign markets or just find out more about other countries. There are also officials on a state and national level tasked with bolstering the $274.6 billion worth of goods U.S. companies exported in 2000 � including $73 billion from Florida.

As well as having more companies looking at the international marketplace, Jacksonville is also poised to ramp up the number of foreign companies doing business here. Among others, the British consulate in Atlanta has visited the area a number of times, Freeman said, interested in the First Coast because of the infrastructure and transportation possibilities.

"What seems to have occurred recently is more and more inquiries from foreign companies looking at Jacksonville," the WTCJ director said. "Our promotional efforts are paying dividends."

Even if they don't set up shop in Jacksonville, foreign companies might soon be shipping more goods through the port here, especially if port officials are successful in luring an east-west shipping line. "We've seen a lot more distribution center activity here in the last year, 18 months, " said ICS' Brown. "A lot of people have realized that, logistically, it's a good place."

And, meanwhile, people like Kim will continue shipping in Korean orchid seedlings and, in a few months, start shipping fully grown plants around the country.

But for the Korean native who's been in Jacksonville for more than 20 years, the importance of the greenhouse is that it's just the first step in building more trade relationships between Masan and Jacksonville. "This is not only for the orchids," Kim said. "It's a basis for all sorts of exporting to Northeast Florida. The greenhouse is a seedling itself. More businesses will grow from it."


� Have sufficient cash on hand

� Keep on top of paperwork

� Make your Web site internationally friendly

� Build relationships with your customers

� Find niche markets

� Talk to the government � city, state and federal

� Be aware of changing regulations

� Be careful


Jacksonville is filled with organizations designed to help companies that are looking at exporting or importing. Here's a few:


� Bill Cronin, 359-6600

� Provides manufacturer/exporter matchmaking services, conducts research to assess foreign receptivity to Florida products and organizes and recruits for market site trade events.


� Rick Ferrin 630-3085

� An independent public agency, Jaxport is responsible for the Blount Island, Talleyrand and Dames Point marine terminals.


� George Banks, 630-1059

� Helps market Jacksonville to the international business community. Focuses on attracting companies to the area as well as serving as a clearinghouse for international activities in general.


� Nancy Olson, 630-2368

� Promotes educational, cultural and economic exchanges between Jacksonville and its six sister cities: Bahia Blanca, Argentina; Murmansk, Russia; Masan, Korea; Nantes, France; Yingkou, China; and Port Elizabeth, South Africa.


� Cathy Hagan, 620-2476

� Based at the University of North Florida, the SBDC provides a variety of small-business workshops, including one on "The Basics of Exporting." Also offers one-on-one counseling at no charge and a "Passport to International Trade" kit for a nominal fee.


� John Freeman, 366-6682

� Overseen by the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce's International Division, the WTCJ is a regional export assistance center, providing consultation, trade information and worldwide trade leads.


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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