Good citizenship means understanding what’s happening in the world, and being a good businessperson means doing business internationally, said Schuyler Foerster, past president of the Colorado Springs World Affairs Council.
“If we’re going to be around in another 40 years, we better be global,” Foerster said.
Earlier this month, Foerster served as moderator of a panel discussion on doing business internationally, sponsored by the Business Journal. The featured speaker was Les Janka, who served in executive positions in Saudi Arabia for many decades. He also worked in the White House under three presidents on international affairs.
Janka joined Colorado Springs business consultants Elena Steiner and Robert Strauss and contractor Scott Bryan speaking to an intrigued audience at the Breakfast with the Journal event held at the Pinery on the Hill.
Janka and his wife lived in Saudi Arabia for eight years. Most recently, Janka served as president-Saudi Arabia for Quincy International, a company formed specifically to help Americans come into the Saudi market.
“Saudis last year bought $20 billion worth of services and products from the United States,” Janka said. “Business is booming in Saudi Arabia. They welcome American business. They welcome our style of doing business and our products.”
American business owners wanting to cash in on Middle East business should research the countries and opportunities at the U.S. Department of Commerce regional offices and website, he added.
But first, he stressed, is the importance of patiently building strong relationships with businesspersons in foreign countries. Janka said one of the biggest problems with Americans doing business overseas — not just in the Arab world — is their lack of patience.
“We just cannot take the time to build the relationships or to just cope with the slowness of other places. We think we can fly in there, do three briefings, four PowerPoints, the contract is drafted, and we say, ‘Come on, let’s sign the contract. We’ll have it on the ship to ship next month. Oh and by the way, my business development director says I have to book this sale this quarter because we’ll run out of business development money if we don’t.’
“That kind of talk just doesn’t get you anywhere, that approach, the impatience. I think I have probably seen more business opportunities go sour because of American impatience.”
Bryan agreed, saying, “You don’t text them and expect an answer back. They are face-to-face folks, and in doing so, you have to travel over there and spend days with them.”
Close to American impatience is American arrogance that also “doesn’t get us very far,” Janka said.
“They want to get to know you. They want to build trust. Things move slowly, but it’s all about relationships. Once relationships are established, they will last forever.”
Business-building in the Middle East is not just about a paycheck, Janka said. Most successful companies doing business in Saudi ask the questions: What are the needs of Saudi Arabia? How do I train your people? How do we create local jobs for your people, not just dump our stuff on the docks and go home?
They also make an effort to learn the culture of a country, what motivates people in a region.
“Again, Americans are tremendously handicapped because somehow, genetically, we think if you just speak English loud enough, anybody will understand. That doesn’t work. Even a few words of Arabic will go a long way because it shows respect,” Janka said.
Conversely, American businesspeople should think about Saudi companies doing business in the United States, and how the American companies can help, he added.
“Make it a two-way street. In my little Loudoun County in Virginia, we have 40 German companies. American companies are working with them building some fantastic business relationships and creating a lot of larger markets for businesses,” Janka said.
He added that more than 100,000 foreign students are at schools in the U.S., “and I’m sure there are a lot of them here in Colorado. Every one of those students needs an internship learning how to do business,” Janka said.
The Colorado Springs contractor has built in the Caribbean on the Turks and Caicos Islands, Afghanistan, Turkey and other areas in the Middle East. It has offices in Istanbul, Turkey, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Bryan started working overseas in 2010 after a client here, the Army Corps of Engineers, asked him to bid on a project.
“They asked me to go to Iraq after the first Gulf War,” Bryan said. “I said, ‘No, I don’t have the resources.’ They asked me to go to New Orleans after Katrina and I said, ‘No, I don’t have the resources.’ In 2010 they asked me to go to Afghanistan and I said, ‘You know? Things aren’t so rosy around here. I think I might do that.’ ”
Bryan’s contact at the Corps of Engineers advised him to get a partner overseas and provided some names.
“So I spent a lot of money and time and went to meet with them. Like Les said, you don’t just call them on the phone. You spend days with them. You go to dinner with them, meet their families. That’s just the way they are. It’s been a heck of a journey and it’s been a lot of fun,” Bryan said.
In the Caribbean, Bryan Construction International built a Coast Guard base on the island Great Inagua, “in the middle of nowhere,” Bryan said. “My guys said it was heaven in hell. There’s nothing there. Everything had to be barged in: cranes, concrete, trucks.”
The company was set to enter Iraq, “and that was when ISIS kind of blew everything up in there. My sources tell me that we are going back into Iraq to finish that job,” he added. The company is also improving the Dahla Dam in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan and built barracks for U.S. Special Forces in the Middle East.
Dubai is “pretty awesome. It’s New York City built in a 10-year time frame,” Bryan said. “I recommend everybody go there. It’s amazing.”