SPOKANE, Wash.—Vern Jenkins, an international trade business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC), received the statewide business advising service’s top award—the State Star—at the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Seattle District annual spring gala on May 8.
Jenkins, who is based at the SBDC lead office in Spokane, worked with more than 80 businesses in 2018, most in rural areas of Eastern Washington, to help them start or expand their export trade. Those business owners credited Jenkins with helping them obtain more than $16 million in capital funding, increase their export sales revenue by more than $8 million and add 269 jobs.
SBDC advising is provided at no-cost to the client, is completely confidential and is customized to the needs of each client. The Washington SBDC network includes more than 30 business advisors and two international trade specialists—the other is located in Seattle—who assist small business owners and entrepreneurs who want to start, grow or buy/sell a business. Washington State University is the statewide host of the Washington SBDC and, along with the SBA, provides administrative support and oversight of the state’s two dozen SBDC centers.
Nearly 95 percent of potential customers live outside the United States, Jenkins said, and while export isn’t for everyone, it can offer incredible benefits to those who take the time and effort to explore their business’s export potential. The SBDC provides soup-to-nuts advising to help clients determine their export potential and then take the steps necessary to implement successful, long-term international business strategies.
“The Washington SBDC began offering export advising to small business owners and entrepreneurs less than 10 years ago, and already we’ve seen tremendous growth in economic impacts associated with international trade,” Jenkins said. “We know the trade potential is huge, but the challenge is communicating that more broadly to the small business community and letting them know help is available.”
As a member of the Washington Export Outreach Team (WEOT), Jenkins works with state and federal trade assistance organizations to increase export awareness and opportunities to enter foreign markets with a particular focus on rural small businesses. Foreign markets are often a gateway to higher profits and larger sales, Jenkins said, which can be especially important when the local customer base is limited.
In April, Jenkins and his SBDC colleague, Allan Peterson, were honored by NASBITE, the world’s largest professional association focused on international trade education. Jenkins and Peterson received a program excellence award for their export readiness training program and their work to organize and lead annual out-bound trade missions for small and medium-sized businesses. This program was developed and supported in conjunction with the Grant County Economic Development Council for new-to-export entrepreneurs. Their Road Map to Export Readiness program has been key to outbound trade missions they have been leading to Asia, including cities in Japan, Korea and China, since 2016.
“Vern’s comprehensive, step-by-step process for helping small business owners plan and implement a successful export strategy has become a model for other SBDC networks across the country,” said Duane Fladland, state director of the Washington SBDC. “Vern has demonstrated that not only is export viable for rural small businesses, but it can be a critical component to their success and long-term sustainability.”
The Road Map to Export Readiness is a step-by-step program to determine if there is a market demand and if the business has the infrastructure or capacity to meet the demand. Participants are given the tools to move forward independently, but they are also eligible to participate in outbound trade missions where they prepare for meetings with potential buyers, visit stores to see their market competitors, and meet the buyers face-to-face. Jenkins and Peterson continue to assist with next steps when participants return home.
One of Jenkin’s clients, FLEXHIBIT, received the 2018 SBA Pacific Northwest Small Business Exporter of the Year award. “We were green and just dabbling in the idea of marketing and shipping outside of the United States when Vern called,” said FLEXHIBIT CEO and founder Coleen Quisenberry. “He gave us the confidence that we needed to move forward.”
Jenkins’ more than three decades of work in international training and trade was sparked by his first overseas experiences on a two-year mission trip to Taiwan in the early 1970s where he became fluent in Mandarin. Throughout his career he has been involved in working across cultures and helping people find common ground to overcome operational challenges.
In 1995 he founded a company that developed and delivered bilingual, customized training programs for the China-based operations of many Fortune 500 companies including Reebok and Nike. Across diverse industries, Jenkins’ company provided expertise that enabled U.S. companies to train employees and create overseas supply chains that were reliable, met quality and production standards and were compliant with U.S. and overseas regulations.
From 1995 to 2006 he was also CEO of Horizon Service, a consulting business which assisted U.S. companies with startup and development activities in China. Much of his work involved assisting companies with assessing potential suppliers, developing business operations, negotiating agreements and fulfillment orders, and assessing manufacturing and distribution capabilities.
Culturally sensitive communication that creates an environment of trust and respect is key to successful training programs, Jenkins said, and it’s also key to international work in general.
“It doesn’t matter whether you are Nike or Reebok or a cider maker with two employees,” Jenkins said, the principles of successful export are the same. Three critical questions are: Is there market opportunity? Is there market demand? Is there operational capability ?
“The SBDC is one of few organizations that can really help a client develop a business plan, understand the export process and execute a path forward,” Jenkins said.
For more about the Washington SBDC, go to https://wsbdc.org