U.S. Commercial Service – A Smooth Operator

August 2, 2011

Carrie Bevis is an intern at the International Trade Administration’s Office of Public Affairs.

Last week, a group of ITA interns, myself included, shuttled over to the Commercial Service Export Assistance Center for Virginia and DC in Ballston for our first fieldtrip! There are 108 U.S. Export Assistance Centers or USEACs spread out across the United States that serve as the domestic arm of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service (US&FCS). “Our trade specialists are the boots on the ground in local communities across the country that connect U.S. businesses to and the various programs that ITA and US&FCS has to offer,” said Director General of the US&FCS Suresh Kumar.

As we excitedly assembled ourselves around a sunny conference table with William Fanjoy, Director of the VA/DC Export Assistance Center and Sandra J. Collazo, Senior International Trade Specialist, we eagerly leaned in to hear more about how the Commercial Service works out in the field office around the country. Of all the trade organizations in the government, Commercial Service is the networker, the “one-stop shop” for any company who believes they’re ready to export. Fanjoy is many things; a networker, a salesman, a shameless Peace Corp promoter, but he would never claim to be an expert in international trade. Instead, he and his team are experts in international trade resources.

ITA Interns on a field trip to the Northern Virginia Export Assistance Center

ITA Interns on a field trip to the Northern Virginia Export Assistance Center. Photo Credit: U.S. Dept. of Commerce, ITA

If the trade promotion sectors under the government are a well oiled machine, then Commercial Service is the oil that helps all the parts run smoothly together. There are many government agencies committed to advancing international trade with specific functions. Apart from ITA, there is the International Trade Commission (ITC), the Small Business Administration (SBA), the Export-Import Bank (EXIM Banks), and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) which are all bound by a similar mission: help U.S. companies to export. Short of a pending identity crisis, I asked Fanjoy why there were so many seemingly similar organizations and how the teams at Commercial Service tie in. “All those departments specialize in something specific and important to advancing international trade. Working for the US&FCS, my job is to understand all the needs of the exporter and link them to specific services that span several different Federal and State agencies, as well as services provided by the private sector,” said Fanjoy. “Most successful exporters utilize four or five services from two or three organizations in every export transaction. I can’t tell you what the exact tariff is for batteries entering India, but I sure as hell can tell you who can, and that person is a good friend of mine. My job involves building relationships with the people in all of those agencies so that when I get a call from a business seeking export help, I can connect them to the appropriate person and trust that they will be coached through the process.”

What’s especially impressive about US&FCS connectivity is that they have 126 foreign offices in U.S. embassies and administrations in 75 countries across the globe. The insight and benefit of having officers physically working in the end destination of the future exports is invaluable to U.S. businesses that may be hesitant about international trade. Not only does this ensure an accurate, first hand perspective on overseas markets and the securing of U.S. interests, but it also allows your local export center to wield the power of a foreign embassy in ensuring fair trade. Trade can be scary and uncertain for small companies, but Commercial Service is there to illuminate the process and shed light on any shady transactions a firm may encounter.

Working in an export center is taxing, but rewarding. At the end of the day, it all comes down to how many people (and how well) you actually helped to export a good or service. And at the end of the year, every trade specialist has about 40 export successes, meaning that their personal help can be traced back from an actual exchange of goods or service by a U.S. business. In total, US&FCS helped 18,000 businesses export their goods and services last year.

In order to achieve that level of success, the employees must continuously reach out to local businesses. Fanjoy describes himself as a salesman because he must actively market the USEAC’s services. With the goal of doubling exports by 2014 set by the National Export Initiative, Commercial Service teams cannot afford to wait for the calls to trickle in so the they must be proactive in seeking out new clients with export potential. They travel the state to reach out to small businesses through seminars and travel the world to help businesses reach out to potential clients through trade missions.

On average, it takes about 18 months from the time a call comes in to the time exports are exchanged. Often when a business calls their export center, they are far from being export-ready, and are only export-interested. These firms are led through the process of market research and trade financing that is necessary to ensure that they’re ready to engage with foreign markets. Once they’re ready, US&FCS can play matchmaker by offering the Gold-Key Match-making Service to firms, a program that handles the often complicated logistics of visiting foreign companies on trade missions.

We all left with a better understanding of how our work is making a difference to real businesses in our area, and a little relieved to know that it is someone else’s job to understand all the interworkings of every agency. I’m assured that any business would find themselves in capable hands at their local USEAC, as they’re all staffed by some smooth operators.

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