Doing business internationally can net opportunities abroad — and help to shape yourbusiness philosophy
|Troy Muljat, an associate broker, developer, and appraiser in Bellingham, traveled to Indonesia with a Christian nonprofit group to help aid the poor this past spring. He is pictured there with some Indonesian children. Muljat said such trips change his outlook and focus both personally and professionally. (Courtesy photo)|
When Bob Hall was arrested in Afghanistan, the life lessons he had learned from years of business travel were amplified. Unfortunately for Hall, life lessons were about the only possessions he had to take with him after the incident.
The story reads like a movie script: Hall, now an established Bellingham developer, was detained approximately one week in 1976 by the Afghan government in Kabul for allegedly concealing the location of a turquoise mine in the country — a mine that didn’t exist. The arrest occurred after Hall, who was working as an importer of foreign goods, had crossed the border into Iran, purchased a couple of kilograms of turquoise, and then crossed back into Afghanistan.
When he was trying to ship the turquoise out of Afghanistan, the authorities became suspicious and arrested him. While he wasn’t placed in a prison, he wasn’t allowed to leave the country and he was forced to pay for a full-time policeman that stayed in the hotel with him.
“I had a gun put in my ear, just to get my attention so they knew I knew this was serious,” he said.
During his detainment, Hall also parted ways with his turquoise: As part of his punishment, he was forced to visit various government officials — including several at the national level — and literally pay his respects.
“Everybody in every office would take just one little stone,” said Hall, smiling in his State Street office in Bellingham as he thought about the time. “It took about a week to go through the whole thing, and they finally decided that yes, there was no turquoise mine in Afghanistan.”
While most business travel today doesn’t involve paying off government officials or detainment, travel abroad can help local businesspeople look at business — and life — in a new, fresh way.
Hall has traveled as an importer in many countries around the world, including Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, the Philippines, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, and is even the godfather of several children of former business partners in Ecuador. Throughout his travels, two major concepts were constant companions to his success: patience and perseverance.
“A lot (of what I learned) had to do with flexibility,” Hall said. “Oftentimes, I spent the first week in the capital trying to find out what the new politics were and who the best shippers were.”
He said a lot of what he learned working abroad has served him well here in Bellingham as a developer of historic properties.
“Renovating these old buildings is more challenging (than doing international business),” he said. “A lot of (importing) had to do with working with bureaucracies. I found that if you couldn’t go through the front door there was usually a side door and you waited. There was a different way to do things and you didn’t give up. There were many people in my business that got frustrated and left, but I never left until I got the shipment out.”
This business mindset can be applied to any business and any person in any country and any scenario, he said.
“Ninety-five percent of the people collapse at the finish line on these marathons in business,” he said, speaking of business dealings both home and abroad. “That’s where the opportunity is to just push it one step further … Four or five of the buildings I’ve bought were (owned by) people who were bankrupt trying to finish them because of the frustration.”
Ken Oplinger, president/CEO of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said traveling abroad could make a tangible impact, in addition to a philosophical one.
“The thing you can really benefit from – whether you’re traveling for business purposes, or just traveling for pleasure to learn more about other parts of the world – is to learn about the culture, learn about the people and how they do business,” he said.
This past March, Oplinger led a group of approximately 275 Whatcom County residents and business leaders to China in an effort to establish closer ties with that country. This November, roughly 450 city community members will have a chance to make connections across the Pacific when the group returns.
“(The trip) certainly helps you to have a leg up on others who might want to try and find a way to do some sort of trading relationship with China or work in China,” Oplinger said of doing business abroad. “(China is) an emerging market. There’s a lot of things going on there. But if you don’t understand the culture there, and you don’t get a good read on how people interact there – you’re going to be a step behind those who do. Simply by traveling there and spending some time getting to know people, you get a sense of that. You get a lay of the land.”
One businessperson who went on the China trip was Liz Davis, a catering consultant with Haggen Market Street Catering. Davis, who has traveled extensively throughout Europe and Central America, said the China excursion was her first official business trip.
“I didn’t know what to think before I went, only what I read in the guide books,” she said. Her preconceptions were altered after her journey.
“China was a different world — completely different from anything you see over here. You come home and you’re more grateful for what you have,” she said.
Traveling as a businesswoman was different, too. She said she felt the Chinese culture didn’t seem to respect the roles of women in the business world as much as they do in Western culture. Regardless, the experience was good for her, and she would encourage more women to participate in business travel.
“I don’t see why women can’t go out there and do what the men are doing,” she said. “I think the more you have a one-on-one relationship, the more you can accept them and the more they accept you – both culturally and as a businesswoman.”
While the trip didn’t net any concrete business connections, she did try a lot of interesting foods and discovered new preparation techniques — aspects that are important to someone in the catering industry.
“It was awesome,” she said. “It was very interesting seeing a different culture. It was a real wake-up call.”
This past spring, Troy Muljat, an associate broker and appraiser in Bellingham, traveled to Indonesia with a Christian nonprofit group to help aid the poor. During his travels, he spent half a day with a local Indonesian real estate developer, touring some of the developer’s projects — and seeing how the developer handled working in an impoverished environment. The experience impacted him greatly, he said.
“There’s a bigger picture out there,” he said. “We live in our little comfort-zone boxes, and our problems are so minuscule. It puts things into perspective.”
John Cooper, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism, said travel abroad not only helps establish viable business connections, but can also make you a better citizen.
“The more somebody can travel outside the United States, the better they can contribute to a community,” he said. Cooper was part of a trade delegation appointed by the World Bank and the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle that traveled to Vietnam in 2002. There, he met with community leaders in the port city of Haiphong to work on tourism and business-development issues.
“Travel is an eye-opener, especially when you leave the country,” he said. “(Travel) helps a person get a broader perspective of cultures and human behavior – as well as expectations of how to deal with people. Even if I never have another relationship with a Vietnamese citizen, at least I have a greater understanding of what it’s like in another region of the world.”
Said Oplinger: “As you do business with other people, even in your own country, you’re going to find people – because of their cultural background, because of where they’ve come from — they may do things differently …. It’s not just the work abroad, but it’s also being able to be as effective as you can be in your business relationships here as well.”
Despite his traumatic experience in Afghanistan, Hall said travel has sculpted his world view in an overwhelmingly positive way.
“Traveling and sticking your neck out ultimately makes you trust mankind more and feel closer to the goodness in every person and every culture,” he said. “In 30 years of business, I don’t think I had one or two bad experiences, so my trust factor for mankind is way high. That’s what traveling does.
Bellingham business group to visit China in November
Bellingham community members will have a chance to make connections across the Pacific in early November as part of a trip to China coordinated through the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce.
Oplinger, said 450 people will have a chance to sign up for the eight-day trip that will be highlighted by two conferences involving members of the Chinese business community: one in Beijing, and one in Shanghai.
The aim of the trip is twofold, he said: to learn about Chinese culture through tourism, and to meet and potentially link up with the Chinese business community for future business dealings.
The trip, which runs $1,399 for chamber members and $1,499 for non-members, is essentially all-inclusive. Plane tickets, airporter service in the U.S. and China, ground transportation in China, food and lodging are all included.
Call the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce at (360) 734-1330 to sign up.
Space is limited.
Practical advice for traveling abroad