The art of the trade mission

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:45 pm


The office of the World Trade Center Wisconsin, located on the third floor of the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center in downtown Milwaukee, has great up-close views of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava addition, Lake Michigan and of the eastern part of downtown Milwaukee. Not that R. Christian Bartley, the chief executive officer of World Trade Center Wisconsin, has had much time to enjoy the view.

Since the local office of the World Trade Center moved into the site last month, Bartley has spent time in Vietnam and Hong Kong. He’s hosted visitors from Germany. And he’s busy planning business trade missions to central Europe, southern China and India that will depart later this year and in early 2008. Bartley is no stranger to world travel. As a child, he spent stints in Poland, France, Spain, Puerto Rico and other countries. He’s also experienced in international business relations, giving him real value when consulting companies interested in doing business overseas. Bartley recently discussed the mission of the World Trade Center Wisconsin with Small Business Times reporter Eric Decker. The following are excerpts from that interview.

SBT: You just completed a trip to Vietnam. Tell me about that trip, the cities and places you visited and what kinds of outcomes you think might come from that trip.

Bartley: “The trip to Vietnam was a little bit different from the normal missions that we do. We categorize trade missions into three different categories. There are political missions, which are the ones that most people hear about. That’s when the governor or the secretary of commerce or (Mayor) Tom Barrett goes to China. That’s a political mission. It opens some doors, good for handshaking, goodwill, larger companies.

“Then there are business missions. B-to-B. Those are the ones that we predominantly focus on. That’s where we take companies, and it’s all matchmaking. We set up meetings for them with distributors, suppliers, manufacturers, customers, accountants, law firms, the whole gamut, to be able to provide them with the necessary resources to get into that marketplace, whatever their goals may be in respect to that.

“Then there’s the familiarization tour. And that’s more what the trip to Vietnam was. I never thought it was ever going to be the business-to-business matchmaking (trip), because Vietnam only recently acceded to the World Trade Organization. The difference between the World Trade Organization and World Trade Center is very important. It’s still an emerging market.”

SBT: So, if you were to do another trip to Vietnam, would it be a B-to-B mission?

Bartley: “It might be a hybrid. I think Vietnam is positioned to explode economically. I do think that we will go back. I think that we’ll try and put it together within the next 12 to 18 months. I’d like us to go to the south this time. I think it’s potentially important for some of the companies, depending on their needs, to at least see what there is to see in Hanoi, meet with some of the people in Hanoi, but definitely go to down to Saigon and Ho Chi Mihn City.”

SBT: How are your trips structured? How hands-on are you with businesspeople? Are they left to their own devices, or do you serve as a chaperone?

Bartley: “There’s a very detailed profile form that every applicant has to fill out. And we make a determination as to whether or not they are suitable to participate in the mission. They have to understand what their goals are in order to be able to go. The more detailed they get, the better job we can do. And the more they will benefit from the experience. We take that information, and we have a number of tools we work with internally, but we call our offices that we work with overseas as well as a number of resources that we leverage overseas. And we begin to do the matchmaking. Our offices will have the profile forms, they’ll work with us, they’ll start sending us information on companies. So, we send the profile forms, they search for the companies (to match up with ours), they send us, we vet with our overseas offices who is going to be best and then we set the meetings up for them.”

SBT: Does World Trade Center Wisconsin then come along on the meetings?

Bartley: “Yes, exactly. We set the whole thing up. It’s turnkey. Logistically, usually we let them make their own airfare arrangements because we’ve found that people have frequent flier miles. Other than the flight arrangements, the package deal usually is from when you get on the ground. You’re picked up at the airport by somebody. We’re all at the same hotels. You are there with us. You have a detailed agenda before you even leave the United States. You actually get two things. You get a pre-mission briefing book, which is given to you at the pre-mission briefing. And you then get what we call a bible, which has profiles of the companies you’re going to meet with, your itinerary, emergency contact information, cards for the hotel you’re staying at so you can just give them to taxi drivers and they’ll take you home. It’s very detailed, very scheduled, very organized.”

SBT: The cost of these trips – does it end up being market rate, or are these companies paying for your services as well?

Bartley: “They are paying for the services, as well as the hotel and their meals and other costs. It’s all included. Because we are a nonprofit, we don’t have to charge exorbitant amounts like other consulting firms. It’s very cost competitive. Also, when we do missions, it becomes more cost-competitive, because we can get bulk rate discounts. There is a fee-for-service component to it. We charge for all of the matchmaking. We charge for research. And that’s how we’re sustained. It’s a business. It may be a nonprofit, but it’s still a business. We’re not giving it away.”

SBT: In some of these trips, there must have been unusual or funny moments where people were experiencing different cultures for the first time. What sticks out in your memory?

Bartley: “When we went to China in 2005, there were two people who had never left the United States, and one of them certainly got the most cultural of experiences in terms of the food and being taken out by the companies that the person was meeting with. I remember one story with one CEO of the companies that one person was meeting with said, ‘We’re not leaving this table until someone gets drunk.’ And there are interesting foods that some people come across. I’ve had delegates that I’m not sure how they survived, but I think they brought a suitcase full of Power Bars. They were so terrified of the foreign foods.”

SBT: What are some of the common mistakes companies make when doing business overseas, especially if it’s their first experience with international business?

Bartley: “In the United States, the relationship between two companies is based on a contract. We pay our attorneys a lot of money to write a 1,000-page document which covers every possible contingency so that in case anything goes wrong, we know what the ramifications are, we know how to operate, we know what the rules are. And we go in good faith, we negotiate, we work up our contract and we go from there. And maybe we get to know one another.

“In the rest of the world, the contract is based on the relationship. In the United States, the contract defines the relationship, and in the rest of the world, the relationship defines the contract. And that’s critical. That’s where the most glaring and most obvious mistakes I’ve seen.”

SBT: Are American companies more prone to just walk into a room and want to get things done before getting to know someone on a personal level? What consequences can they face for not getting to know their counterparts on a personal level?

Bartley: “They walk into a first meeting with an attorney. I’ve seen foreigners make the same mistakes here from the opposite perspective, because they’re not prepared enough. So it goes both ways. Those are the most glaring cultural mistakes. They’re business mistakes but they’re rooted in the culture.

“I’ve seen and heard the stories of CEOs and presidents of companies who have developed a relationship with their counterpart with the company they’re trying to develop business with and one of them was invited to the home. This was in Europe. And in Europe, it’s not like here. Here, we’re very open in terms of the home. Kids walk in and out without even knocking on the door. In Europe, it’s different. The home is a little bit more of a sacred, private place. So, this gentleman was invited to the home for dinner. And he turned them down. He said, ‘I have work I need to do.’ The deal was gone. There was no opportunity for a deal, because he didn’t understand the basic fundamental.

“And I’ve seen the foreigners come into the United States to a trade show and they meet somebody and get into a contractual agreement and they’re not prepared for the type of contract they get into. And they end up getting hurt. They maybe extend credit on the second shipment and they don’t get paid and they don’t know what to do.”

SBT: What are some of the most promising emerging markets now? India, China and Brazil get a lot of the press, but are there other markets that are appearing on your radar screen now?

Bartley: “Let’s start with China and India first, because those are the ones everyone keeps talking about. I think China’s been beaten to death in this marketplace. We’re going to do a mission to the south (of China) because we perceive there’s still a need for companies to get that assistance. But there’s also transition going on. China’s becoming bigger in terms of the service sector. India is becoming bigger in terms of manufacturing. They are each other’s biggest competitors. In terms of emerging markets, it’s the new sectors within the two.

“But let’s move beyond them because they are so over-talked about in this marketplace. Vietnam is certainly going, I believe, to explode. Their average GDP over the past decade has been second only to China. They’re above India, in terms of GDP growth. They’re about 7.8 percent, I think from the decade of 1995 to 2005, which is surprising. We have a bilateral trade agreement with them, which means in essence that we can trade with them. I think that market is really positioned to explode.

“I’m curious in looking at Asia, about Thailand. There’s a growing buzz, and the Thai have been pushing themselves as a marketplace. The Thai ambassador came here last summer. We were invited by the Thai government to come visit. We’re still working on the scheduling of that.

“I think central Europe is a region to pay attention to. I think the Czech Republic is probably No. 1 that people talk about, and then Hungary. Both of them are huge. And they have a lot of opportunity, and they’re more sophisticated than most of the emerging markets. I look at trends – where did they go to develop their marketplaces? They went to their neighbors in western Europe when the wall came down and the Cold War ended. If the Germans, the Belgians and the French, if they’re going, something’s happening, and we need to pay attention. I think in Poland there is a lot of opportunity. I think (the same of ) Lithuania and Slovakia. I’m curious about Romania, but I think it will take a little bit of time.

“And then, in terms of the Middle East – Turkey. I met with the minister of trade, I had lunch with him last summer. They’re very aggressive, in terms of trade. This was not his first time to Chicago, the United States and the Midwest. He’s been here before. And he’s coming back at some point, at least that’s what he said. Another area in the Middle East that has potential is Beirut, Lebanon, although there has been some political turmoil there.

“In the Persian Gulf, Dubai in the UAE (United Arab Emirates) is looking for new business ventures, outside of oil production. Bahrain is one to keep your eye on, because prices there are significantly cheaper. Oman also.

“As far as Brazil goes, I’ve been hearing about it for years. They’re moving a little slower than other respective markets. I’m waiting to see what happens there.”

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