Say you work for a small or medium-sized company. You want to sell pretzels in Vietnam. Or electric power cable in China. Or lipstick in Denmark.
How to go about it?
Maybe you're ignorant. Maybe you're scared. Maybe you just want a leg up.
Chances are you will eventually find your way to the local outpost of a federal agency known as the United States Commercial Service.
In an era of tax-slashing and bureaucrat-bashing, this network of 1,500 professionals, based in 221 cities around the world, earns kudos from business executives for the practicality and sophistication of its commercial diplomacy.
Whether tucked away in office parks, or working behind the walls of palatial embassies, they are the ground forces in President Barack Obama's ambitious push to double U.S. exports over five years.
Marv Sepe, chief operating officer of CTC Global, an Irvine manufacturer of electric power cable, joined a renewable energy trade mission to China in 2010, courtesy of the commercial service.
"Only 15 percent of the world's transmission is in the U.S.," he said. "I wanted to find distributors and people to buy my product."
The agency set up a dozen meetings for Sepe in three Chinese cities. Face to face with officials from regional utilities and the state electrical grid, he touted his firm's high-tech cable, which cuts energy loss along power lines by a third and, unlike steel cable, doesn't corrode.
For CTC Global, with 110 employees and about $40 million in annual sales, "it was a tremendous credibility boost to be showcased by our government," Sepe said. "Our brand recognition soared."
As a result, the firm now works with a Chinese industry advisory group on green tech and gets regular requests for bids on state projects. The company has also launched a joint venture in China.
And Sepe has joined the U.S. Commerce Department's Southern California District Export Council, a group of experienced local executives who counsel would-be exporters.
Big companies rarely if ever need help with exporting their pharmaceuticals, toys or movies.
Commercial service specialists tend to focus on smaller players. With 95 percent of the world's customers living outside the U.S., according to the Commerce Department, exporting is often the key to expansion, as well as a major job engine in any local economy.
"Doing business outside the U.S. is so different," said Richard Swanson who oversees Commercial Service offices in California, Nevada and Hawaii. "The biggest hurdle is fear of the unknown.
"But we're here to mitigate the risks. We have experts in every global market, and in every sector from aerospace to medical devices to franchising."
A few staffers sat around a conference table at the agency's Irvine office on a recent afternoon. Maryavis Bokal was just back from helping to lead a delegation of more than 25 California firms to Europe's biggest cosmetics trade show, in Bologna, Italy, after tutoring them on the continent's complex regulations.
"California has a lot of cachet in consumer-related items," she said. "Whether it is cosmetics, hair care, nutrition, clothing, we leverage the California brand to attract foreign buyers."
But navigating market nuances is tricky.
"For instance in Italy, the trend is to sell cosmetics in pharmacies," she said. "Our companies need to know that, if they want distributors. Another example: A skin care firm in Cerritos sells through dermatologists in the U.S. But in France, doctors aren't allowed to sell products."
For Bokal, "One of the coolest things was to see our embassy colleagues from Greece, Italy, France and Denmark all sitting down with one company to share their knowledge."
Kristin Houston, who specializes in franchising everything from hamburgers to educational tutoring, talked about finding a pretzel franchisee in Ho Chi Minh City. She also handles apparel, recently helping a Costa Mesa hat maker to decipher the logistics of billing and shipping to a Japanese buyer.
Raul Lozano, who covers electronics and automotive industries, described an effort to connect a local financial software firm with five distributors in Mexico. "When the U.S. government calls, distributors pick up the phone," he said.
At a recent Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Jim Mayfield, a veteran of posts in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, found himself translating from English to Mandarin for local firms at a meeting with 30 Chinese buyers. Often, cultural differences must be explained. He recalled a company that wanted to sell cake mix to China several years ago, but few Chinese have Western-style ovens.
Scott Chorna is a senior vice president at Johnny Rockets Group in Aliso Viejo, Calif., which has franchises in 25 countries for its Americana-themed restaurants. When he first started in the business at another firm, Houston, the Irvine-based specialist, had introduced him to two chicken restaurant franchisers who "told me how it worked," he said.
Later, he turned to Houston to find a Vietnamese franchisee for Auntie Annie's Pretzels. She also helped him find a Russian partner for the sandwich chain Schlotzsky's.
"When you are a small- to medium-sized brand, it is impossible to have a network in every country," Chorna said. "The commercial service has databases of people interested in importing -- whether its widgets or franchise brands. It is a fantastic resource."
The U.S. Commercial Service offers these customized programs: