27 February 2008
BISNIS: 16 Years of Achievements
BISNIS: 16 Years of Achievements
By Philip H. de Leon, BISNIS Director
2008 marks the 16th year of operation of BISNIS so I would like to reflect on some of the achievements of BISNIS by writing a few words about its support to small businesses, its staff, its use of technology, its team spirit, its promotion of American corporate values, and its intangible results and then conclude by mentioning a few lessons learned and making a few suggestions.
BISNIS and Small Businesses
As explained by the Small Business Administration (SBA): "the importance of small businesses (independent businesses having fewer than 500 employees) to the country is clear: there have been more than seven million new American jobs created in just over three years, more than all the other industrialized nations combined. Two-thirds were created by small business." Numbers compiled by SBA show that small businesses "employ half of all private sector employees, pay more than 45 percent of total U.S. private payroll, have generated 60 to 80 percent of net new jobs annually over the last decade and made up 97 percent of all identified exporters and produced 28.6 percent of the known export value in FY 2004."
BISNIS is proud to have helped tens of thousands of small businesses, as well as larger ones, at nearly every stage of their project or transaction with a flexible model of support, sharing insider contacts and expertise and showing a constant willingness and ability to bring people together through knowledgeable introductions and encouragement.
BISNIS and its staff
For those of you who have worked with us, you all know that what made BISNIS special is its staff. BISNIS was fortunate to be led by strong personalities that directed our organization with unfaltered determination (can do attitude) and a unique dedication to customer service: Linda Nemec, Anne Grey, Trevor Gunn and Tanya Shuster. They also were blessed to work with equally determined and committed staff, both in Washington, D.C. and in Eurasia, all fostering a strong private sector spirit.
At its peak BISNIS was present in 10 countries and 10 Russian cities and had a staff of 35. In just a few years, the Department of Commerce via BISNIS ended up having the most comprehensive network of representatives ever assembled in Eurasia. That well-integrated and efficient operation was consistently compiling commercial information on market opportunities, becoming a unique and often sole source of information for U.S. companies as well as other U.S. government agencies, universities, think tanks, and even Eurasian embassies!
Rapidly, BISNIS evolved into a very organized and focused institution, tasking its overseas staff with the responsibility of writing practical industry and regional market reports, compiling commercial news updates, identifying promising local companies interested in finding an American partner or a supplier of U.S. goods and services. The BISNIS overseas representatives became more than just promoters of U.S. companies, they acted as good-will ambassadors, bridging two very different worlds and bringing businesspeople together by dispelling stereotypes, misconceptions and the apprehension of doing business with far away countries. BISNIS became more than just an information clearinghouse, but a true matchmaker.
With a solid staff, BISNIS started to perform outreach throughout the United States, sending D.C. based International Trade Specialists to speak at conferences or special events focusing on Eurasia. On a regular basis, overseas staff would be brought to the U.S. to participate in these events. Similarly, the D.C. and Eurasian staff would travel in Eurasia to do the same. Hundreds of U.S. and Eurasian cities have been visited. More than once were we told "you are the first American I see" or to our Eurasian representatives "you are the first Tajik we see."
BISNIS and technology
In the early days, BISNIS was mostly a phone line and a fax machine. Phones were ringing constantly and information on the "Newly" independent states was mailed in large envelops or accessible via Flashfax where documents on focused topics could be retrieved by fax by choosing a specific document number.
Soon, BISNIS launched a website that rapidly became the most comprehensive website on doing business in Eurasia and was recognized multiple times as Best of the Web by Forbes Magazine. Today the web site hosts thousands of practical documents on how to do business in Eurasia, including some network wide reports on how to finance deals in Eurasia, on the telecommunications sector, on certification, transportation of goods, etc.
The BISNIS website was associated with an email broadcasting system where documents would not only be posted on the website, but also emailed to specific email groups BISNIS clients would have subscribed to.
BISNIS was amongst the first to actively use audio-video tools as an image is worth a thousand words. Armed with simple camcorders, BISNIS interviewed businesspeople and foreign officials, taped events and facilities, etc., opening a window onto a world that was very unfamiliar to the U.S. business community. See: www.bisnis.doc.gov/av/
Lately, BISNIS has continued exploring new tools to reach out to clients by conducting webinars (web based seminars), allowing companies not based in the D.C. area to attend virtual events.
More recently, BISNIS has been adopting RSS Feeds technology. RSS is a format that allows websites to syndicate information that changes frequently.
BISNIS and its team spirit
Just like Belgium, BISNIS is small and it could have used the same motto: L’union fait la force (Strength through unity) to characterize its way of thinking.
Throughout the years, BISNIS has been a team player, traveling, organizing events, and working very closely with other Commerce colleagues, both domestically (U.S. Export Assistance Centers, Eurasia experts such as Susanne Lotarski and Jack Brougher) as well as internationally (Foreign Commercial Service), State, Treasury and Energy Department; other government agencies such as Ex-Im Bank, Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the U.S. Trade Development Agency (TDA), and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). BISNIS also has a memorandum of understanding with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) on joint promotion and collaboration, worked with multilateral development banks, world trade centers, non-profit organizations, visitors programs, rotary clubs, sister cities, foreign embassies, multipliers such as American Chambers of Commerce, etc.
Independent but still promoting American corporate values
Sometimes U.S. agencies working overseas are looked upon with suspicion. I fondly remember my overnight stop in Temnikov, Mordovia (Russia) where I showed up with an 80 pound red suitcase and within half an hour of my arrival had a local FSB officer knocking on my door, asking if I was the American with the red suitcase and checking my passport trying to understand why in the world was I there.
BISNIS never had a secret agenda, nor were we ever told to advance foreign policy goals. This being said, BISNIS did promote business principles such as rule of law, good governance, business ethics, and any corporate values and principles that would improve the business climate and enable business people to speak the same language.
Corruption is without any doubt a dark side of doing business we relentlessly fought. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act forbids corruption of foreign officials and the simple act of giving a bride opens a floodgate of problems beyond legal implications. Transparency International mentions that "corruption constitutes a major obstacle to democracy and the rule of law and that it hinders the development of fair market structures and distorts competition, thereby deterring investment" while the World Bank adds that "Corruption weakened public service delivery, misdirected public resources, and deterred new investments. Overall, it exacerbated poverty and human suffering."
In parallel, we have pushed Eurasian companies to be more transparent re. their activities and what they had to offer if they were serious about attracting an American investor or partner. In the process, we had to understand and convey back to the U.S. companies the local reality. The fear of tax authorities for instance is one reason why many small and medium sized companies prefer to keep a low profile and become suspicious when asked too many questions.
Similarly, we worked closely with some of the embassies to tell them about what information was needed from them. Just a few years back, obtaining a visa application form off the internet was not a given. The simple fact that all the Eurasian embassies have now a website is a great leap forward. Today, many contain practical information that we asked of them for years.
Though BISNIS’s successes have mostly been measured with dollar figures of export and investment success stories, there are many things BISNIS did that few know about but that are worth mentioning at least once.
- Heart to Heart
Heart to Heart, is a non-profit organization based in Oakland, CA that strives to make heart surgery accessible to all children of Russia. Heart to Heart provides free medical services, extensive training and education, and medical supplies to sponsored hospitals in Russia with the goal of creating self-sustaining heart centers. BISNIS representatives both in Washington, DC and in Russia helped Heart to Heart conduct site assessments in several Russian cities to determine where to replicate its successful St. Petersburg operations. After 20 years, Heart to Heart has five heart programs, in St. Petersburg, Samara and Tomsk, and is actively looking to launch a new site this year. In 2007 alone, over 1,000 children were operated on at Heart to Heart-sponsored sites. The total number of Russia children who have undergone heart surgery at Heart to Heart sites is over 5000, and this annual figure continues to grow exponentially.
In spite of the huge potential of the Eurasian market, it remains a tough sale in the United States. As a result, BISNIS has been very active in supporting local multipliers’ efforts to organize events by posting information on the BISNIS website, sending email broadcasts and identifying potential speakers. You may, as a result, have attended Roza Simkhovich’s event in the fall in Tucson, AZ or Helen Teplitskaia’s Golden Galaxy Awards (American-Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry) in December in Washington, DC, or Bob Pace’s Annual Meeting (American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce) in June in Washington, DC.
- Non-proliferation of weapons and technologies of mass destruction BISNIS contributed to the efforts to prevent the proliferation of weapons and technologies of mass destruction. Through collaboration with the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) and the United States Industry Coalition (USIC) that work to facilitate technology commercialization, BISNIS assisted in giving visibility to the commercial leads they had identified. Both organizations work with former Soviet Union scientists, engineers and technicians, assisting them transition their knowledge into peaceful and sustainable commercial pursuits.
- Training staff that end up in high quality positions Over its 16 years of existence, BISNIS has seen going through its ranks a high number of extremely talented individuals. Some after BISNIS ended up working for U.S. companies such as Halliburton and Intel, for their own government such as at the Ministry of Agriculture of Georgia, for multipliers such the American Chamber of Commerce in St. Petersburg or the U.S. – Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, international institutions such as the EBRD, others furthered their education by going to graduate schools such as Iowa State University and Harvard.
Lessons Learned and a Few Suggestions
The BISNIS experience has clearly demonstrated that a governmental office can be professional, responsive and effective. Many times we had clients surprised we would not only call them back, but would do so within the hour of their call. BISNIS has constantly learned from the feedback it received, adapting its services to the always-evolving needs of its clients. One of the key to BISNIS’s success is the relative independence it enjoyed throughout its existence, enabling it to quickly implement new ideas without having to go through a debilitating clearing process.
BISNIS played a key role as a clearinghouse for practical commercial information but also contact information. What I have observed is a lack of knowledge about available governmental resources (federal or state). Also many companies tend to ask for advice but end up not following them. The most successful BISNIS clients we had would be in touch with us once in a while to update us on their activities and needs, enabling us to share the most up-to-date information we would have on financing tools, upcoming events, names of U.S or foreign officials to contact, etc.
In spite of the educational role BISNIS has indirectly played, misconceptions and a lethargic approach when it comes to exploring export and investment markets have led U.S. companies to miss out on opportunities while European, Chinese, Indian, Turkish and now Russian and Kazakhstani companies are fully engaged. Why is Russia considered too "dangerous" for U.S. firms while it is considered by foreign companies and investors as one of their most rewarding and promising markets (see 2006 International Investment Survey)? If some U.S. firms consider Moldova as too small a market, then why is a famous U.S. health & beauty products company present? If Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan are too risky then what fueled the over 30% GDP growth in Azerbaijan in 2006 and why did an American Chamber of Commerce open in Bishkek in 2005?
To conclude, I want to thank all our U.S. Ambassadors, Deputy Chiefs of Mission and embassy & consulate colleagues for their support throughout the years. I also want to thank the 12 embassies of Eurasia for their friendship and accessibility so that no topic would be off limit.
But most of all I want to thank the BISNIS clients who contributed to the success of the BISNIS program by working closely with us in trying to achieve commercial success in the challenging markets of Eurasia.