Crimean Lessons for US Companies Doing Business Abroad

Protecting your business when crisis eruptsInternational political disturbances such as current events in Crimea and prior upheavals in, among others, Syria,Venezuela,Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Egypt, Georgia, Congo, Iran and even Cuba always have profound effect on US businesses operating in the countries involved in those conflicts. Large US companies operating across the world have long learned to foresee and mitigate risks associated with politics, while small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs), not so much. This is at the time when US SME sector has undergone unprecedented international expansion fueled by low dollar exchange rate, reduced costs of telecom and travel, advances of the internet and growing demand for US products and services.

So what can US exporters, contractors, investors and franchisors learn from the Crimean conflict and what steps can they take to protect themselves from the next eruption in a seemingly safe international destination?

DO NOT PANIC!

This is by far the most important lesson. My business and I have survived three full-blown political crises, living through the fourth and have saw many significant government and policy changes, financial melt downs a half-dozen revolutions and a war in countries where we have had permanent operations, or business dealings.

First, protect your employees, corporate property and information. Start implementing contingency plans and have all non-essential personnel leave the country if the State Department issues travel warnings for the country you operate in. Stay in constant touch with the local US Embassy, or US Commercial Service. Analyze and reanalyze the news and information you gather from your private network. Look for signs of permanent shifts, if those are not present odds are any crisis will blow over and things will return to normal and in many cases lead to greater economic prosperity.  Some crises play out in days (Georgian war, GkCHP in Russia in 1991) some like Crimea look like they are long-term game changers and require a more fundamental reaction and adjustment of one’s business to be in sync with the new reality and with the modified US policy.

STAY INFORMED

Develop and cultivate multiple sources of reliable information. During rapidly breaking international events, there is a tremendous amount of white noise and inaccurate information pouring out of multiple sources. Social network posts, experts of various stripes appearing on TV, newspaper and magazine articles all putting their own spin on the events, with many being inaccurate and some just plain fake.  Thus it is important to distill several balanced general news, as well as trade sources to extrapolate accurate and timely information. For instance during Crimean crisis multiple US mainstream news sources were a day late reporting many important developments, so having reputable local sources (often available in English) is important.

Develop an informal network of Embassy and government agency officials, local chambers of commerce (AMCHAM) offices, bilateral councils, legal and financial professionals operating in the countries of interest. Initiate regular information exchanges and analysis sessions with members of your network. Join LinkedIn groups and actively monitor subject discussions. Ask yourself periodically if coverage you are receiving is correct and balanced. Make sure you understands all the issues and perspective of all sides involved in the conflict.

CONTINGENCY PLANNING

What happens if you have an order in route to a foreign country and a conflict arises there? What happens if your buyer is arranging credit and you have ramped up your production when sanctions are imposed? What happens if you, or your employees are in the country during the start of an unrest?  What happens if the ruling party changes during significant contract negotiations? What about a politically motivated change in leadership among your perspective customers, borrowers, and other interested parties?

To minimize your risks, you will want to keep your business, your person, and your information secure. That means at least taking common sense precautions in your daily business operations.  It also means that you have to be absolutely ready to  abandon your entire business in the foreign country at a moment’s notice. In the movie Heat, Robert DeNiro, playing the part of Neil McCauley, defined his survival strategy:  “Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” A similar strategy should be employed when doing business abroad.

An effective survival strategy must always include contingency plans. These could include getting out of a country in a hurry whether via traditional or alternate routes, implementing a crisis management plan and hiring security, using medical evacuation insurance, or knowing where you can get access to  a few thousand bucks for when your wallet is lost, office ransacked, ATMs cease operating or Visa/Mastercard system is disabled. For exporters who have goods en route, or are n the middle of a contract production, know your rerouting options, alternative markets and formulate your plan in case the force majeure clause of your contract is invoked.

DO NOT SAVE ON LEGAL COSTS and PAPER ALL TRANSACTIONS PROPERLY

Small and mid size businesses generally despise lawyers (well certainly legal costs) and temptation is often to cut corners, re-use standardized contracts, distribution agreements and not go through with full legalization of property and asset acquisition in country. Often owners wish to remain hidden and transactions are done through intermediaries and sometime with “tax optimized” funds. BIG mistake. What will you do if a country has change of government, or worse yet the place where your company does business become’s another country (Crimea is just one of many examples of such transformations over the last 25 years.)  Use reputable lawyers both in the US and locally. Spend a bit extra upfront and have a piece of mind later on.

BUY INSURANCE!

In addition to commonly used freight insurance used by exporters, three specialized kinds of insurance are available to protect US companies and their employees venturing abroad:

Political risk insurance (PRI) – covers investors from such perils as political upheaval, currency inconvertibility and expropriation, creeping expropriation or nationalization of their assets. This type insurance also protects franchisors from loss of their royalty streams and protects contractors who are building international projects. Many private companies offer PRI, but OPIC – a federal agency tasked with financing and insuring American cos.’ investments abroad offers the most comprehensive and flexible policies for the money. MIGA – a unit of World bank is another potent source of PRI. Coverage is open in about 150 countries and we recommend it to all our clients venturing abroad.

It is important to consider PRI at the very early stages of the planned international investment or franchising process. Underwriting process is similar to that of a traditional loan and takes a few months.

Export credit insurance (ECI) – covers exporters from the risk of non-payment by the foreign buyers whether due from financial or political causes. It allows exporters to vastly expand their intentional business by offering open account sales with terms of up to 180 days. ECI policies range from an umbrella type of insurance covering multiple buyers to an individually tailored, albeit more expensive, single buyer coverage. Underwriting for ECI policies depends on the size of the proposed transactions and usually takes 1-2 weeks. ECI is offered through a number of private insurance carries and through the Export Import Bank of The United States (US Ex-Im).

Travel Medical Insurance (TMI) – covers business travelers against illness or injuries while traveling abroad. This type of coverage either permits subsidized or free treatment at authorized local doctors and hospitals, or when needed, allows for MEDEVAC evacuation to safe jurisdictions in case of serious injury

Fluent In Foreign Academy puts a series of bi-weekly educational webinars on selecting the right PRI, TMI and ECI solutions. To register for the upcoming sessions, please complete the form below:

International business is often very profitable and exciting, but events like the Crimean crisis remind of the perils and should force each and every one of us doing business abroad to reassess and augment our risk mitigation strategies and procedures.

Please email me with any questions you may have about making your company better prepared to deal with international crises – agordin@broadstreetcap.com

FI3Indices

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About Alexander Gordin
An international merchant banking professional with over twenty years of business operating and advisory experience in the areas of export finance, international project finance, risk mitigation and cross-border business development. Clients include foreign governments, municipalities and state enterprises as well as Fortune 500 and small/medium enterprises. Strong entrepreneurial instincts, combined with leadership and strategic skills. Transactional and negotiations experience in over thirty five countries. Author of the highly acclaimed "Fluent in Foreign Business" book and creator of the "Fluent in OPIC", "Fluent in EXIM","Fluent In Foreign Franchising", "Fluent in FCPA",and "Fluent in USTDA" seminar/webinar series. Currently developing "Fluent In ......" seminars and publications. Co-author of the Fi3 Country Business Appeal Indices. Extensive international business development and project finance transaction experience in healthcare, aerospace, ICT, conventional and alternative energy infrastructure, distribution and hospitality industries. Experience managing international public and private corporations. Co-Founded three companies abroad. Strong Emerging and Frontier Market expertise. Published and featured in numerous publications including: The Wall Street Journal, Knowledge@Wharton, NBC.com, The Chicago Tribune, Industry Week, Industry Today, Business Finance, Wharton Magazine Blog, NY Enterprise Report, Success magazine, Kyiv Post and on a number of radio and television programs including: Voice of America, CNBC, CNNfn, and Bloomberg. Frequent speaker on strategy, cross-border finance and international business development. Executive MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. B.S. in Management of Information Systems from the Polytechnic Institute of NYU. Specialties Strategic Management Advisory, Export Finance, International Project Finance & Risk Management, Cross-border Negotiations, Structured Finance transactions, Senior Government and Corporate officials liason

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