We need to learn to work with our neighbors.

Our business neighborhood is changing. The fences that once protected us from most of our competitors have all collapsed. The boundaries that define our resources and our markets are thousands of miles away in every direction.

Although we are confronted with new competitors, we also have new customers.

It is frightening and it is thrilling. The more we understand the full dynamics of this international change, the more opportunities we have. We can defend our businesses better and at the same time we can earn new revenue in foreign markets

We are all in a global business community, whether or not we see it.

I discovered this a few years ago while I was working on a furniture industry assignment in southern California. After experimenting with some importing projects, I realized that my education needed updating. I lived near the University of Califonia, Irvine, which offered a course in export and import administration. I signed up. In my first evening class I discovered that I was the only American-born student in a class of 25. My classmates were from China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and a dozen other countries. The class discussions we had provided much of the value of this mind-stretching education.

New course available

Now, there is a valuable international trade course being offered in West Michigan.

The Van Andel Global Trade Center provides essential information for companies engaging in global business. The center is integrated within Grand Valley State University in the school's downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., campus. I would like to develop a connection between this school and FDM readers.

The founding staff of three is focused on research, translation and training. As needed, they can expand their team with experts from Grand Valley State's faculty and students in the graduate college of business.

The center's mission is to make U.S. companies more competitive in international trade. The small, specialized staff is supported by the facilities and resources of the university. They have helped more than 6,000 individuals better understand international issues.

I recently interviewed Sonja Johnson, associate director of the center. She is very knowledgeable about global issues small and large. As proof of her bedrock background she maintains her license as a customs broker. She is actively engaged in consulting with several companies and she interacts with the teaching staff at GVSU.

For those companies that are planning to add specialized international trade staff to their U.S. organization, the Van Andel Global Trade Center has introduced an interactive job board that is also linked to job boards of similar organizations throughout the world.

Valuable insights

The staff has helped U.S. companies directly in many ways:

  • Prepare for foreign trade shows
  • Study regulations of foreign countries
  • Matchmaking with other companies
  • Work with customs brokers and transportation companies
  • Hosting networking events
  • INCO term training

One of the most reassuring attitudes I noted in the Van Andel Global Trade Center's culture is that they do not assume every company should become involved in international trade. "For some, it is not best," observed Sonja.

In the furniture industry we have been largely focused on the negative aspects of foreign manufacturing competition. However, the doors swing both ways. There is a balancing change in the vast opportunity for exporting American skills and products to other countries. Areas such as the United Arab Emirates and many countries in Europe and Asia are having their own surge of consumerism. We can balance the income we have lost to low cost Asian factories with the high value sales opportunities in blossoming new markets. Americans are not the only customers for luxury products.

We can design furniture in the United States, make it in China and sell it in Tokyo.

The Van Andel International Trade Center is available to help companies import, export or do both simultaneously. Our future is to do both. We would not be the first industry to do this, of course. When I visit China and get homesick for some American food, I occasionally stop for a McDonald's hamburger in Kowloon.

The Van Andel family that has sparked the development of this education center is sharing some of its own experience with diversification. They are co-owners of Amway, a multi-billion dollar business that has become much more than an American door-to-door sales organization. The company has grown and evolved into a vast international network of entrepreneurs selling many types of products in more than 80 countries and territories. They sell a mindset as well as many products.

The type of consulting and education that we foster in the United States is critical to our success in developing an effective world view that is diverse and inclusive. To become a viable part of the global economy, the U.S. furniture and cabinetry industry needs to go back to school.

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