Export Excursion

by Edna Tenney

Last March, while most of us were having our hopes of an early spring dashed by a late round of harsh winter weather, a contingent of Vermonters were enjoying the late summerlike temperatures of Argentina and Uruguay as members of a trade mission led by the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce. Six days of briefings, receptions, meetings and more meetings, sandwiched between a couple of 12-hour flights, didn't leave the participants much time to enjoy the pleasant weather, but did set in motion plans for continued efforts to establish Vermont trade links to these South American countries 9,000 miles away.

"We had extremely full days," says Barbara Patterson, a project database specialist with Stone Environmental Inc., a Montpelier environmental science and GIS consulting firm. "Our group had about 20 appointments in four days."

Fluent in Spanish, Patterson and Chris Stone, the firm's founder and president, were uniquely qualified for this trade mission that focused on environmental technology. "A translator always accompanied us, but for the most part our meetings were in Spanish," Patterson says.

Tony Caruso, marketing manager at Clean Earth Technology of North Ferrisburg, a firm that designs, manufactures and sells ground water remediation equipment, has traveled abroad extensively setting up foreign distribution for his company's products. Caruso met with several oil refinery representatives in both countries. "I was exhausted," Caruso says, happily. "I was even late for a press conference one day, because I came back from a whole day of meetings and there were more people waiting to see me at my hotel."

NRG Systems of Hinesburg, a renewable energy company that provides instrumentation for harnessing wind power, sent salesman David Simkins on the trade mission. "My first day there started, I think, at 6 in the morning and ended the following morning at 2 a.m.," Simkins says. After four meetings that day, "there was an embassy reception that night and I had a dinner meeting at 9 at a restaurant, which was just opening at that time of night. We didn't even start eating until after 10. We wrapped that up about 1 a.m., and I got back to the hotel about 2." He also notes that, in spite of the late dinner hours in the tradition of southern Europe, "they don't take siestas or long lunch breaks there."

"Companies that export pay 17 percent higher wages, are less likely to go out of business, and more likely to grow," says Denise Beliveau, pictured with Chris Stone (left) and Chuck Ross.

The planning for this trip began a couple of years ago when the Vermont World Trade Office in partnership with the Vermont State Chamber and the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber applied for a grant offered by the Environmental Technologies Export (ETE) program, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce that assists environmental technology firms in exporting. The state chamber proposed a continuation of its efforts in Taiwan, and the Lake Champlain chamber proposed a new foray into Argentina to develop trade relations. The feds rejected the Lake Champlain chamber's proposal -- too broad, they said, needs more specifics.

Luckily the effort didn't stop there. Wayne Roberts, the chamber's long-time president and organizer of other trade missions to Russia, China and Switzerland, had breakfast with Howard Seaver, Burlington lawyer and former chamber chairman.

"I told him I was pretty disappointed," Roberts recalls, "and he has just come back from Uruguay, where he has had personal and business interests for years. So he starts describing this whole Switzerland-to-Switzerland-type thing, that Vermont is a small state and Uruguay is a small country -- and that we could get a better foothold, and be more comfortable, in a small ...

"And guess what?" he says, interrupting his own story, "He was absolutely correct! He brought a whole different way of presenting it. So we changed the whole grant application around from going just to Argentina, kept Argentina but the focus coming around through Uruguay. So he was the impetus to define it much better and we won it the next time around."

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Seaver is equally excited about the trip, but much calmer in his explanation of his contribution. "There is an odd similarity between Uruguay and Vermont," he begins. "Uruguay is sometimes called the Switzerland of South America because it is so small, and it's a money and banking center. And Vermont is often compared to Switzerland for its size and more for its natural beauty, but they are both small places among much larger ones. And I felt an odd similarity to the Vermont personality in the people there." Uruguay offers another aspect that made it appropriate for a trade mission: The headquarters of Mercursor, a South American common market, is in Montevideo.

It's the personal connection Seaver has with this small, distant country that contributed to acquiring this grant, and his discovery of that connection is also part of the background to this trip.

Eight years ago Seaver set about locating South American relatives with whom his family had lost touch back in the 1930s. He found what he hoped was a good name and address in Uruguay, sent off a letter and waited.

"One Friday afternoon several weeks later as I was getting ready to leave my office, this lengthy fax came through my machine and it was in perfect English. It was written by one of the young people in the family, like my kids' generation, and told the history of his branch of the family and introduced themselves." The family there is headed by Selio Zak, who owns a 45-person accounting and business consulting firm in Montevideo. Zak's brother, David, is part of the firm. They are the grandsons of Seaver's great-aunt -- his second cousins. That early effort resulted in a flurry of letters, and several visits back and forth by both sets of relatives.

This flourishing family connection probably was the clincher for the grant application -- a highly qualified, knowledgeable contact "on the ground" as export professionals put it, in the country to be visited. The traveling contingent included Seaver, his wife, Barbara, and their son, David, who acted as the group's unofficial photographer. The Zak family provided professional services to the trade mission participants, and social and cultural aspects as well.

Once the grant was secured, there was more than a year of preparation before the participants climbed aboard a plane. The $300,000, three-year grant was divided among the two chambers and the Vermont World Trade Office, which hired Ingrid Hart as the grant administrator. Denise Beliveau is the director of international trade and investment for the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development and recently "enfolded" the Vermont World Trade Center into her responsibilities. "The grant is also a partnership with the International Trade Alliance here and in some other New England states," Beliveau says.

David Simkins, NRG Systems; and Betsy Cabrera, Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce

For the Lake Champlain chamber, the trip organization was handled by Betsy Cabrera, director of membership services, who earns participants' rave reviews for her efforts. "It's a matching grant," Cabrera says, "$30,000 for each of three years, so we have to come up with $30,000 each year as well." She explains that the first year, computer use, her time and other expenses matched the grant, and this year the businesses' payments for their trip expenses totaled more than $40,000.

Early in 1999, to fulfill one of the requirements of the grant, Roberts, Cabrera, and Roger Kilburn, who was then with the Vermont World Trade Center, traveled to Argentina and Uruguay to make arrangements and meet with the embassy staffers who would be working with the Vermont businesses. They also met with David Zak in Montevideo and Jorge Villmitjana in Buenos Aires, to work out the particulars of their representation.

"The Department of Commerce pays their contracts through us -- and that's really key," Cabrera points out. "Oftentimes people go either on a trade mission like this or on their own to do sales overseas, but then they get back and they don't have a connection on the ground to follow up -- and following up internationally is really difficult."

In April 1999 the chambers put on a joint seminar at the Radisson Hotel Burlington to educate environmental companies about the trade mission and other export programs available to them. More than 40 environmental companies from around the state participated.

Once businesses signed on, there was still more background work to be done. The companies can take advantage of a long list of fee-based services available at the embassies. Many participants chose the "goldkey service" ($350 a day), which searches out appropriate business prospects and sets up appointments. "You provide them with, say, 20 information packages about your business," Cabrera explains, "and fill out this long questionnaire. Then, before they start making any calls, they call you and kind of interview you over the phone, so they have a really good grasp of what you do. Then they start calling."

When the group arrived, first in Buenos Aires and then Uruguay, they received a briefing about each country from embassy staff before beginning their rounds. Each morning, cars arrived at the hotel to take Vermonters to their appointments, with Cabrera orchestrating the connections. For evenings she was in charge of other preparations. One of the other services the embassy provides is planning and staging events, such as receptions and dinners. The planning is similar to party or wedding planning -- with per-person costs at different price points -- but the invitations and set-up are handled by the embassy. "They had this very strict protocol about who they were inviting and what the numbers were going to be," Cabrera says. "They didn't want too many people for security reasons, but they didn't want it to look too empty. And they had to have the right quantities and everyone had to be there at the right time."

From left: Tony Caruso, Howard Seaver, and David Zak.

Several people in the Vermont group, most with experience developing export business in other countries, were surprised to find so many services available at the embassies. The business support is under the auspices of the U.S. Commercial Service, a division of the Commerce Department, which has a network of 1,700 trade professionals throughout this country and in more than 70 countries around the world. They are charged with "helping small- and medium-sized businesses reach international business goals," the literature says.

Susan Murray is Vermont's commercial service representative, heading up the Montpelier Export Assistance Center, where she works through her counterparts in embassies worldwide, providing Vermont companies with trade leads, potential distributors, and arranging in-country appointments.

Other people on the trip were Roger Perry, president of Champlain College, and his wife, Heather. Perry was looking into opportunities to expand the school's distance-learning program and looking at the possibility of new semester-abroad locations. Jo Bradley, manager of the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA), went along because one of her areas of lending is export finance assistance. Lori Machlin, who is responsible for government and public affairs in Vermont for Bell Atlantic/Verizon, was looking at the telecommunications industry in the two countries, as was Jerald Johnson of JLJ Consulting Services, a consultant in telecommunications technology, who traveled with his wife, Karen.

The official chair of the trade mission was Steve Terry of Green Mountain Power Corp., who is the chairman-elect of the Lake Champlain chamber. "He was extraordinary because of his past political experience with Gov. Aiken," Roberts says. "And we had our government delegation and it was great to have them there to make sure we had the right contacts." He's talking about Chuck Ross of Sen. Patrick Leahy's office and John Taylor from Gov. Howard Dean's office, in addition to Murray and Beliveau.

That's the cast of characters, the settings and a sense of the action. But there's more. Barbara Seaver, an interested observer of this diverse group of Vermonters being ferried around these bustling South American cities in small cars with drivers and translators, sums up by beginning with the current trendy phrase, "But, at the end of the day ..." Then it becomes clear she is talking about the actual end of this group's busy days, when they would come together for drinks or dinner and share their experiences:

Montevideo, Uruguay

The interest from one of the largest oil refineries in Argentina in Tony Caruso's pumps that can tell where the water table ends and the oil spill begins and just pump the oil. Or Roger Perry's meeting with Ambassador Ashby and the Uruguayan education minister, who was interested in hearing about Champlain College's distance-learning. Or the shared excitement and pride when Chris Stone was interviewed by the local media, and he conducted the entire interview in Spanish. "The most amazing part of it," Barbara says, "was that it was a trip of so many parts -- traveling with a group of very interesting people from a small state who were making connections with very large prospects and the added sense, for us, of having relatives involved in both a business and a personal way."

The chamber is looking for new businesses interested in participating in the next trade delegation to South America planned for March 2001. In addition to its emphasis on environmental technology, Wayne Roberts would like to see an added focus. "There is no question there is an opportunity on the tourism side," he says. "These people love to travel and they all go into Chicago or Miami or Orlando. But when they heard about us ..."

Talk to Wayne if you want to hear more.

Special thanks to David Seaver, a Skidmore College graduate who's working as a commercial photographer in Charlotte, for the photos that accompany this article.