Interview with Robert Brown
January 8, 2024
Episode 8: Today, Dr. Omar Ayyash, President and CEO of the World Trade Center Kentucky interviews Robert Brown, an attorney practicing international law. We’ll discuss developing a personal role in international trade. Robert has had an incredible journey and we’re excited to discuss it.
Meet Robert Brown
Robert practices at the firm of Lynch Cox, where he is of counsel. His recent book is titled, Going Global, A Guide to Building International Business, was written with his colleague Alan Gutterman.
Robert explains how the topic of international business and global trade seems so incredibly vast. In reality, it comes down to a couple of people deciding to pursue an opportunity to do business together. It’s about forming relationships. Robert and Omar have worked on such opportunities over the past 20 years together.
Robert realized, at an early age, that he wanted to practice law and specifically, international law. He graduated from the University of Louisville and took a job with a Japanese trading company. Trading companies play a significant role in the international business sector of Japan’s economy. He later joined a large, San Francisco law firm and opened their Tokyo office. Eventually, he joined a San Diego start up that went from $1,000,000 in sales to $25,000,000 in 3 years.
Kentucky has approximately 259,000 Japanese companies doing business in Kentucky. A large part of this is thanks to the foreign direct investment by Toyota and other auto-related companies.
International Business in Kentucky
Robert discusses how the business environment has significantly evolved during his career. Toyota and UPS, in particular have had a tremendous impact on our community and the state at large, with both imports and exports.
Getting Started in International Trade
Robert transitions to a discussion of how companies should approach global trade. He recommends beginning with a long-term plan. Identify your comparative advantage(s), relative to the other products and/or services currently in the market. Focus on those areas.
When it comes to exporting, Robert explains there are many resources, including the World Trade Center Kentucky, that can make it much easier than people think. Yes, it takes time and effort, but the hill is not as steep as people might imagine.
You can get assistance identifying specific markets for your product/services. There are reports highlighting particular companies that may need what you have to offer, in those markets. You can also get assistance with setting up meetings and having a translator participate, if needed. As Dr. Ayyash has often said, the World Trade Center Kentucky is an aggregator.
The Value of Trade Missions
Robert shares his insights about the value of trade missions. Rather than simply showing up in a country and trying to make contacts, participating on a trade mission might be a better first step. There are often high-level officials participating. When these individuals introduce you, it provides a sense of legitimacy and status. Think of it as an inherent endorsement. Once you’ve made those contacts, future meetings will be much more effective. Think of it as a two-step process.
The World Trade Center Kentucky recently sponsored a Trade Mission to Dubai. It was a terrific experience both culturally and economically.
Advice to Those Interested in Cross-Cultural Understanding
Robert explains the key to cross-cultural understanding is about human understanding. We are each individuals. It’s important to understand that we often communicate differently with members of our own family and with friends. It’s not all that different in cross-cultural situations. The fact is different cultures have various customs and ways of communicating that you should familiarize yourself with, before causing embarrassment to you or the person with whom you are interacting.
For instance, in Japan, Robert discusses how the seating arrangement actually gives valuable clues as to the power structure of the Japanese team sitting across from you. While center seat may be the official spokesperson, there’s almost always another person who will make the decision. He may be seated toward the end of the row. It’s important to engage with the entire team, rather than focusing on the person at the center.
When exchanging business cards in Asia, and other places, there is a formality involved. Never place your thumb over your name or company. It’s viewed as you insulting yourself. Rather, hold it by the corners when presenting it. It’s helpful to place the other team’s cards on the table in front of you. Interestingly, Robert observes that went the other group picks up the cards, it’s time to stop talking. It’s a signal.
A final point is to listen to both what is being said, as well as what’s not being said. If the table gets quiet, there may be something going on. Use this opportunity to ask for their opinion. It might uncover something they found to be confusing, contradictory or concerning.
In Japanese business, the more valued approach is achieved by explaining how the offer is the safer approach relative to other offers for products/services. The Japanese perspective on standing out because of a bad decision is very important to know. Demonstrate how choosing you is safer, enabling them not to actually stand out.
The key it to understand what’s important to the humans involved in the discussion with them. Once you have this understanding, communicate and negotiate with that in mind. View the engagement from their perspective.
How to Effectively Participate on the Board of an Internationally Focused Organization
Dr. Ayyash mentions that Robert has been a very active member of the Board for the WTCKY. He asks Robert to share advice about how to add value as a board member. Robert prefers to participate only if the board is an active board for the organization. He views the opportunity for robust discussion and an exchange of ideas to be where he adds the most value. Boards have a tremendous number of talented individuals. Why limit it? There’s value in the synergy.
The Value of Lifelong Learning
Robert describes the path he selected enabling him to continue to learn and to grow. Developing new skills prevents you from becoming obsolete in an ever-changing environment. Find a way to reinvent yourself, every 5 years.
Is It Still Important to Learn a Foreign Language?
Understanding a foreign language is definitely beneficial. Surprisingly, it may also help your English grammar. If you have some level of proficiency with a foreign language, you may be able to understand when the other person isn’t fully following what you’re trying to explain. He/she might make a comment to a colleague that provides a valuable insight for you.
Understanding a language also enables you to pick up on important perspectives about what that cultural and the individual hold to be important or significant. As Robert stated at the beginning of our conversation, success in international business often begins with a relationship.
Dr. Ayyash comments that if you can show an interest and appreciation of the culture you’re visiting, it adds value. It demonstrates a level of diplomacy and openness to forming a relationship. Robert adds that relationships often begin by simply being able to hang out with the other person or team, ideally with the ability to speak words or phrases in their own language.
To Learn More About Robert Brown:
Upcoming WTCKY EVENTS:
- 01/17/24 – Intercultural Agility Training (6-week series)
- 02/27/24 – Executive Professionalism – Kelly Watkins
- 03/05/24 – International Trade Certification Program
The next episode of our podcast will launch on 02/12/24. Thank you for listening. Be sure to follow This Global Trade Adventure on your favorite podcast platform, or at www.WTCKY.com/podcast.
We hope you enjoyed Episode 8. Our schedule is to publish a new episode on the 2nd Monday of each month.
Please consider sharing this with your colleagues. Until next time, thank you for listening and welcome to This Global Trade Adventure.