Commercial Officers Use Superpowers for the Good of U.S. Business

November 12, 2014

Frank Joseph is an Officer for the International Trade Administration’s U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service.

Note: The International Trade Administration plans to hold an assessment in 2015 through which it will hire a new class of Foreign Commercial Service Officers. We’ll publish a series of articles about ITA’s Foreign Commercial Service to answer questions from people who may be interested in this career opportunity.

If a Marvel movie about a raccoon can make $300 million, why not make one about a Foreign Commercial Service Officer like me? And it’s not just because I have a mammal’s good looks or a plant’s silver tongue. Rather, my superpowers include imperviousness to 90 degree heat and 100 percent humidity and an ability to drink insanely strong coffee. All earned after three years as a Commercial Officer living in Ho Chi Minh City, working to create opportunities for U.S. exporters.

Vietnam wasn’t on my Foreign Service bucket list, but I assure you, I had it wrong.

Professionally, Vietnam was an amazing experience, and I have no regrets. Here you have a country that endeavors to build its very first subways in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, an integrated highway system that some compare to President Eisenhower’s 1950’s American highway initiative, and an international airport from scratch. Add to those scores of hospitals, billions of dollars dedicated to water treatment projects, and major initiatives to meet energy demands. It is a promising market for U.S. exporters and a fantastic opportunity for a Commercial Officer.

Helping drive American jobs by accessing these sorts of sales opportunities gets my blood pumping. It’s why I joined the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service. I worked with an outstanding team of locally hired staff led by some of this organization’s best Commercial Officers. As a team, we positioned our companies in front of key decision makers, set up sales networks and advised on market “nuances” among other duties.

Nuances – that’s where the rubber hits the road. Almost daily we coached companies how to:

  • Find further clarity to handle un-transparent regulations;
  • Sell to cash strapped buyers who make financing the beginning and ending of conversations;
  • Bid on government projects that involve foreign government “tied” aid – meaning that the country that provides funding support requires Vietnam to purchase its country’s products;
  • Convince Vietnamese buyers not to buy the least expensive solution;
  • Understand state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that make up 35 percent of GDP. SOE decision-making can be political as much as it is profit-driven; and,
  • Avoid corruption — an unfortunate fact of life in Vietnam. Many locals accept it as a necessary part of business. Our firms need to raise this and the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act first thing when interviewing local partners.

And that coaching helped create success for U.S. companies. Our promotion effort to secure a $90 million sale of wind turbines is a great example of the work we do. In this case, we did that by facilitating communications between the U.S. supplier, the local Vietnamese buyer and the various Vietnamese government agencies that regulated the sale. We also helped introduce the Export-Import Bank to finance the deal as competing foreign governments introduced favorable financing to support their companies. Then, we offered up a signing ceremony witnessed by a U.S. Secretary to demonstrate how important the sale was to the U.S. government.

It was just part of the exciting work we do as Commercial Officers, and it’s what you can be a part of if you join the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service. Have any questions? Let us know in the comments below. Or you can sign up to receive email updates from our team.

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