International business travel -- local businesses get first-hand look at their imports

Thursday, February 22, 2007
Mike Crowden brought a large shield back from his Cape Importers' buying trip to Indonesia last year. He hopes to explore India on a future buying trip. (Kit Doyle)

By Jim Obert

Business Today

Susan Younghouse stands amid rows of shelves packed with what some people would call nifty nicknacks -- decorative vases, angels holding onto blue clouds, Old West items such as six-shooter lamps and small cowboy boots, farm animals, hand-painted plates, figurines, all made of polyresin and all imported from China.

"Dealers stop by here to check-out our merchandise," said Younghouse, who along with her husband, Fred Younghouse, own Younghouse Distributing in Cape Girardeau, a wholesale outlet near Interstate 55. "Fred made some trips to China to make business contacts. We receive shipments about twice a week and show our merchandise at trade shows and sell a lot to gift shops."

Rob Younghouse runs the retail side of Younghouse Distributing. "I've been to China four or five times, but my brother, Fred, is the China traveler now."

Fred Younghouse said he's been to China twice and 90 percent of his imported merchandise is made there. He said Chinese-owned businesses have established offices in the United States, and he now uses them as suppliers.

"I still import ... I'll have certain items that I order, but I now use my importers in the States more," he said.

As an international traveler on business, Younghouse relied on English-speaking Chinese to help him with logistics. Besides serving as translators, they were guides to where merchandise was being made.

"They took me to some factories that were in some pretty remote areas," he said. "One time I was looking at gift items at a factory on a very small island, and my brother met me there by taking a ferry built in World War II. There was never much time to sightsee."

Younghouse said he uses import companies in the States as middlemen to get what he purchases through Customs. The companies figure the costs involved and arrange for merchandise to be loaded into containers and shipped to the West Coast. The containers are then sent by rail to St. Louis, then loaded onto tractor-trailers and brought to the warehouse in Cape Girardeau where they are unloaded.

Younghouse said his wholesale business mainly covers the Midwest and the midSouth, selling Chinese-made goods he says are of good quality.

"I visited the factories and saw the workers," he said. "China is a very business-like country and is becoming more and more Westernized."

At Cape Importers in downtown Cape Girardeau, vice president Mike Crowden walks amid merchandise imported from Indonesia. The glossy furniture and colorful artwork are mostly original. The business, which opened last November, has very few wholesale items, said Crowden.

"Most of our merchandise is original and one-of-a-kind. A few items are from wholesalers, but not many," said Crowden. "We can now call or e-mail our Indonesian contacts for some items to be ordered and shipped to us. We also have our contacts scour the country taking photos of merchandise we might want. Once we return to Indonesia, our contacts and their lists will save us time and money."

The principal owners of Cape Importers are Paul Walker of Cape Girardeau and Joe Elayer of Maui, Hawaii. Crowden said Elayer wanted to open an art gallery featuring imported artwork for several years, and he had been to Indonesia four times for vacations, admiring the artwork and furniture.

Crowden said Elayer and Walker traveled to Indonesia in December 2005 to establish business contacts. Then the owners asked him to be a buyer, operations manager and marketer. Last May and June, Crowden joined Elayer on their initial business trip to Indonesia. Elayer stayed there 15 days and Crowden spent a month.

"We hand-picked every item you see in the store," said Crowden. "Joe (Elayer) already had befriended a guide and had made personal contacts with a few artists and sculptors. Because of his previous visits, he knew where the best art and sculptures were.

Crowden said Elayer owns a steel fabricating business in Hawaii, so he had experience in ordering and shipping overseas. "But it was a learning process for me," he said.

Crowden said a St. Louis-based import broker was hired to handle documentation necessary to navigate the Customs bureaucracy. The broker also arranged for the merchandise to be shipped from St. Louis to Cape. Crowden arranged for the shipment of merchandise from Java, Indonesia, to Los Angeles, then by rail to St. Louis.

"The import broker acted as our lawyer," said Crowden. "She had power of attorney over all our containers of merchandise. She was the point person between our business and Customs."

Crowden said he and Elayer obtained business visas, which allow people to stay in a country longer than a tourist visa would. He said Cape Importers has plans to travel to Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, back to Indonesia and maybe the Philippines on business.

"We might also go to India, South Africa, Morocco and perhaps South America. So we're not limiting our import business to Southeast Asia," he said.

International business has taken Jayne Jayson, owner of Jayson Jewelers in Cape Girardeau, to Belgium, Germany and South Africa since 1996. Prior to that year, she was getting diamonds and gems solely from U.S. dealers.

"My first trip to Antwerp, Belgium, gave me a whole new perspective on the diamond business," she said. "I learned a lot about the history of the diamond business."

Jayson, who has been to Belgium eight times and most recently last October, said people doing business overseas generally have to conduct monetary transactions in the currency of the country.

"You need to go to banks or cash windows and exchange your dollars for Euros if you're in Europe," she said.

Jayson said her business benefits from overseas trips because she can buy in quantity -- and see what she's buying beforehand. She said the diamond merchants in Belgium generally have many more stones and gems that the average diamond dealer in the U.S.

A few years ago, Jayson went to South Africa -- for the second time. She and a group of jewelers met with officials of deBeers, the largest diamond-mining business in the world. On that trip, Abercrombie & Kent of Chicago handled all the logistics to include hiring a translator.

Jayson has advice for people planning overseas business trips -- be careful with ATM cards.

"I saw an incident at an airport where a woman was trying to help a British guy get some money from an ATM machine, and instead she scammed him for maybe $5,000. He didn't find out about it until he was in the air, then he knew she could get $5,000 from his account."

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