February 2, 2012

Globalization is no longer the future of business—it is how business runs today. Whether or not they are actively seeking opportunities abroad, companies are already being affected by economic, political and technological forces that arise from every corner of the world. However, business leaders who want to take advantage of international opportunities may be unsure of how and where to start. For an insider's perspective on the challenges facing Midwest companies and the resources available to help them take advantage of public and private initiatives, Much Shelist spoke with Gail Longmore, CEO and Managing Director of the Global Midwest Alliance. As the only business-led economic development group for the Midwest region, the Alliance works to align and integrate regional and international resources to create sustained economic development and business growth.

Much Shelist: In terms of competing on the global stage, what are some of the challenges facing the region's midsized businesses?

Gail Longmore: I would say the primary challenge for most businesses that want to explore global opportunities is simple lack of experience. For example, the Midwest region is home to approximately 11,000 manufacturing companies, of which less than 10% are engaged in any form of international trade. Of those companies that do engage in cross-border commerce, the vast majority limit their transactions (whether as vendors, customers or partners in a joint venture) to Canada and Mexico. This is certainly understandable, given the proximity of these two countries. However, ignoring the rest of the world also means forgoing significant opportunities abroad and limiting growth unnecessarily.

Identifying experienced, knowledgeable advisors—including legal counsel, financial professionals and experts in international trade—is another problem for many business executives. The most effective advisors have been working with companies, public/private organizations, and domestic and international governments and agencies for years. You need someone who can get the right people into the right room at the right time for the right transaction.

MS: How can a company identify such advisors?

GL: The process is similar to any business transaction—you need to do your due diligence. Take a close look at the programs and services these individuals and organizations provide. Investigate the claims they make about their experience and look closely at the networks and other groups they work with. Ask for references; even at the international level, business transactions involve straightforward interactions between people. A positive reputation is very important, as is the ability to deliver on promises.

MS: What other resources are available that can help Midwestern companies build and expand their international presence?

GL: A recent study by the Brookings Institution has found three drivers of economic success: innovation, a focus on exports and a commitment to low-carbon technology. Since so much attention in the press is paid to both U.S. coasts, people in the Midwest sometimes forget that we have significant strength right here in all three areas. For example, the Midwest as a whole, and the Chicago area in particular, is home to the largest contingent of international representatives in the United States, including consulates, investment groups, multinational trade organizations and more.

Technology development—the engine of the global economic future—is also quite strong in the region. The Midwest is home to many of the nation's leading energy, agriculture, health and food safety laboratories. Numerous high-tech trade shows, including the annual International Manufacturing Technology Show, sponsored by The Association for Manufacturing Technology, are held in Chicago and across the region. Such events foster cross-pollination of ideas and opportunities for local businesses. Our organization, the Global Midwest Alliance, organizes nearly two dozen events each year, including the annual Midwest Clean Tech Conference.

The Alliance is one of a number of trade and technology development groups that are committed to helping entrepreneurs, inventors and others develop and take advantage of commercial opportunities at home and abroad. Our job is to increase awareness of these programs among business leaders, and to help position companies to take advantage of the most promising initiatives.

For example, most people are aware of The World Bank Group and its mission to promote development in emerging economies. Few know about the many programs and resources available through The World Bank Group designed to help businesses get involved in projects across the globe. The Alliance serves as The World Bank Group's only Midwest member of the Private Sector Liaison Officer (PSLO) network. Our Director of Global Business Initiatives, Rebecca Riebe, has been trained by World Bank staff and serves as the PSLO for the region. She has significant expertise in emerging markets and global growth, and has helped several hundred businesses identify and apply for World Bank development initiatives in the areas of health care, construction, infrastructure and renewable energy, among other sectors. She has also led trade delegations to various developing countries.

Additionally, we have significant experience working with the Export-Import Bank of the United States, the Asian Development Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and various agencies of the United Nations, to name just a few international and intergovernmental institutions.

MS: How can cooperation help individual companies and the region as a whole?

GL: First, it should be understood that competition and cooperation are not at odds with each other! We should not think of ourselves as being in competition for scarce resources; rather, we can maximize the return on available resources by engaging in cooperation. When local companies succeed, the economic health of the entire region improves, and vice versa. Similarly, just as companies often thrive as part of effective joint ventures, the Alliance works regularly with other organizations to present opportunities that take advantage of each group's expertise.

The Alliance is built on the Global CONNECT™ model that was pioneered in San Diego, California, and has since been implemented in a number of other metropolitan areas across the country. Led by Board Chairman Rick Stephens, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at The Boeing Company, more than 150 companies, universities, public agencies, private organizations and individuals form the core of the Alliance.

MS: Since technology development is at the heart of the region's economic future, how can businesses of all types get involved?

GL: To start, it's important to recognize that technology is a part of virtually every business concern, whether we're talking about service providers, traditional manufacturers, renewable energy companies, etc. All businesses use technology, and all businesses can get involved in the development and exploitation of technology.

From a commercial perspective, businesses should seek out and connect with resources that are in the process of developing new technologies or that can help them refine, maximize and benefit from the technologies they are developing in-house. These resources encompass research labs, professional advisors (including intellectual property attorneys who can help identify and protect creative assets) and public/private organizations.

For example, one of the primary objectives of the Alliance is to match world-class research and scientific resources with industry. Through our Face2Face and Acceleration and Innovation Mentors (AIM™) programs, among other initiatives, we provide technology entrepreneurs and researchers with business coaching, offer a disciplined analytic process to identify and refine business opportunities, and create opportunities for individuals to present their technology to a carefully selected panel of business leaders with the resources needed to help promote and further develop the technology. These and other programs are tailored to the needs of all participants and reinforce the value of cooperation among individuals, businesses and other entities in helping grow the Midwest as a center of economic excellence.

For more information about the Alliance and its efforts to create global opportunities for Midwest companies and entrepreneurs, contact Gail Longmore at glongmore@globalmidwestalliance.org.

This article contains material of general interest and should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. Under applicable rules of professional conduct, this content may be regarded as attorney advertising.