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Global trade experts have managed through COVID crisis

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Carla Stone

World Trade Center Delaware President Carla Stone was at a Feb. 12, 2020, web conference with Chinese trade officials when she first heard about a virus that was wreaking havoc on the country’s economy.

After hearing about the public health crisis directly from the officials on the ground in China, Stone knew this was going to become a big deal. Her office, part of a global network of trade offices, began to be flooded with phone calls from Delaware companies seeking advice on how to get shipments in or out of China with commercial airlines and ships largely grounded.

“We were helping line up freight forwarders for them, because many companies didn’t know just how much cargo actually goes overseas on commercial passenger flights,” she explained, noting the network of World Trade Center offices served as an “early warning system” of sorts for businesses.

Beth Pomper, the director of Export Delaware, a state office under the Department of State that aids companies seeking to sign new business overseas, was in Israel on a trade mission when the pandemic swept the world.

Beth Pomper

“I was on the second to the last flight out of the country before [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu closed the airport … I almost got stuck there,” she recalled.

Returning home on March 13, Pomper set to work to pivot the office’s programming, which heavily depended on using on-the-ground foreign experts to arrange in-person meetings to negotiate new deals for small and medium-sized Delaware companies.

“The thought was, how do we take care of them? How do we keep business going, as much as we can given the fact that the world literally stopped?” she recalled, noting that she wanted to continue cultivating new contacts to ensure there wasn’t a lag in new contracts – they typically take 18 months to complete.

Pomper said that she was challenged throughout the pandemic to reach needed company officials for negotiations, because most were working from home and European privacy regulations prohibit soliciting or listing private information. She relied upon trade associations and even searching out LinkedIn contacts to keep the office’s work going.

Pomper completed three group trade missions to Scandinavia, France and the United Arab Emirates over the past 12 months, with a fourth upcoming in the United Kingdom tailored to women and minority-owned businesses and a fifth starting recruitment for Africa. She’s also arranged four private missions for individual companies in South Korea, Australia, and Canada.

Dr. Harry Wang, of Sepex Technologies in Newark, meets with the owners of Bargal, a key Israeli distributor, during a pre-pandemic 2020 trade mission. | PHOTO COURTESY OF EXPORT DE

The Export Delaware office also marked some high-profile wins last year, including Newark-based Batta Environmental’s landing of a contract in Mexico worth upward of $10 million. The contract for engineering services with the National Water Commission of Mexico ended in June 2020, after nearly two years of negotiations and 30 interventions aided by an Export Delaware expert in Mexico, Pomper said.

In total, Export Delaware recorded at least $1.8 million in state export sales in 2020.

Meanwhile, WTC Delaware has also been hard at work providing expert guidance and analysis to companies free of charge throughout the crisis. It handled more than 220,000 referrals from its international business directory last year and posted 16,500 international job opportunities.

WTC Delaware also arranged a March 2021 virtual trade conference with Afghan officials, marking a new connection with the country mostly known for America’s long-running war.

“There is business happening in Afghanistan. Women own businesses in Afghanistan, they serve in the Cabinet and the ambassador from Afghanistan to the United States is a woman. One of the things that the World Trade Center does is try to break some of the misconceptions between countries,” Stone said.

Ranked as the top country in trade growth with $1 billion in exports and a goal to increase that to $2 billion in 2023, H.E. Roya Rahmani, Afghan ambassador to the United States and the first female ambassador from Afghanistan, attributed this growth to the huge youth population in her country. She said that 65% of the Afghan population is under 25 years old, eager to work, have never known a world without a close US-Afghan partnership, and are invested in future industries like telecom, fintech and biotechnology.

H.E. Roya Rahmani, Afghan ambassador to the United States, describes the opportunities available in hr country in a March 9 trade conference. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WORLD TRADE CENTER

The conference, the first for two-way trade between Afghanistan and a U.S. WTC office, drew high-ranking national officials from both countries, the World Bank and more. Siemens, a global business with 11,000 Delaware employees in Glasgow, noted that it built Afghanistan’s first natural gas power plant since the 1970s in 2019. Its efforts were aided by government officials and international banks to see the project to fruition, said Christopher Clement Sr., director of government affairs for Siemens Energy.

Both offices also committed funds to building resources to aid companies.

Export Delaware started a Delaware Online Global program, which has helped five companies translate their websites for foreign customers so far, while WTC Delaware helped companies get on a list of companies that made products that could help in the global health crisis.

“We uncovered some incredible companies from New Castle County all the way to Sussex County,” Stone said of that process, which leaned on local chambers of commerce to help get word out.

Due to the daily global nature of WTC Delaware’s business, Stone anticipates utilizing a hybrid approach to events following the pandemic, much like they did before it.

Pomper on the other hand said that she will be returning to in-person missions as soon as August, with a trip to Chile and Peru, followed by a trip to Africa in September, where South Africa is one confirmed destination.

“There’s nothing like in-person,” Pomper said, noting officials are cautiously watching health guidance.


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