Erin M. Cole picked a good time to leave her job as a U.S. trade official in Uzbekistan and come back home to the Buffalo Niagara region.
Cole had tried to find trade-related jobs in Western New York before, but because they’re few and far between, she hadn’t had much luck.
Until this spring, when the top job at the World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara came open.
Cole, who grew up in West Seneca and spent the last four years working for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Uzbekistan, took over at the World Trade Center earlier this month.
She discussed her plans for the group and her interest in broadening its market.
David Robinson: How did you find out about this job?
Erin Cole: In between jobs over the years, I’ve always come back to Buffalo and try to find something here. But it never worked out and I’d go back to Washington or go back overseas again.
I moved back sometime in March and it was in early April that I first heard about it. From my own perspective, this was a tremendous opportunity. It was my dream job, to come back to Buffalo and work in international trade.
DR: Are you looking to export the World Trade Center’s services beyond the Buffalo Niagara region?
EC: Our charter covers Western New York as well as part of the Finger Lakes. I think what we’ve missed over time is that we don’t really have a lot of members from the Finger Lakes or Southern Ontario. I plan to pretty aggressively pursue new members from those locations and, along with that, build relationships with the government offices where they have their own staff in Rochester.
DR: What’s your target for expanding membership in the World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara?
EC: You have a lot of companies that have 10, 20 or 30 people manufacturing industrial goods. A lot of them are high-tech patented products.
My target is not to go after the big companies. The big companies have staff on hand, if not legal staff, that know how to navigate international markets and already have a presence overseas in many cases. My target would be small companies, small manufacturing companies and some small service-related companies, including the local colleges, universities and hospitals.
DR: So much of the focus on international trade is on Canada because of the proximity. Should businesses here be thinking more broadly?
EC: Absolutely. If that is the case, I plan to change that. There are more than 220 countries in the world, and many represent a very solid opportunity for U.S. exporters. A company can take advantage of them if they have the right tools, the right knowledge and the right staff.
There are many factors involved. Exporting is not an easy thing, but that’s why our organization exists: to help these companies find the right partners, not make mistakes, and grow their exports.
DR: So where should a company be looking to export?
EC: If it’s an off-the-shelf commercial product that isn’t patented, the whole world is a possibility. But no small company can possibly sell to the whole world. That’s not feasible.
If you don’t have staff on hand that speaks foreign languages, start looking at English-speaking places. You have to be realistic. If you have a small company that isn’t internationally savvy, you can’t start pitching places like China or Russia where the regulations are very stiff, and then you have language requirements.
DR: Exporting takes an investment, too, doesn’t it?
EC: A lot of it is the cost. A lot of the companies, especially the small ones, don’t understand that there are additional costs involved up front with exporting. Some of them are blinded by that, so that they won’t move forward. They think it’s more expensive to export, which is not actually true. It’s just that there are more expenses up front.
But ultimately, if you do it well, with the World Trade Center’s assistance, you’re opening new markets for yourself and you’re increasing your profits and your revenues.
DR: What mistakes do small companies commonly make when they start trying to export?
EC: I had some companies, family business in the Finger Lakes region, that would quote a price the same way they would if they were selling their product in the U.S. not realizing all the different costs that were involved when you’re exporting overseas.
What is the tariff rate in the country you’re shipping to? You need to research that. It could be 2 percent, 5 percent, 10 percent. Somebody has to pay that.
Then you have regular taxes that are involved. You have insurance costs to insure the shipment, and transportation costs. How are you going to get it there and how much will it cost? You have to add these things together before you quote something so you can make sure you’re still going to be making a profit.
A lot of companies don’t realize that those costs can be shared with the buyer. You can negotiate that. If they’re not savvy and not used to doing that, they might eat the cost.