Sarah Fremerman Aptilon has spent the last eight years teaching people how to understand and mediate cultural differences as a senior consultant for Japan Intercultural Consulting. When she and her husband moved from Mexico City to Overland Park in September of 2012, she was prepared for a bit of culture shock.
By JONATHAN BENDER
Special to The Star
But Aptilon, who in her day-to-day work deciphers how interpersonal communication is affected by society and geography, was instead struck by the beginnings of a cultural shift from local to global in Kansas City.
“I think KC is much more aware of its charms and what it has to offer,” says Aptilon, who grew up in Prairie Village. “We really do have things we didn’t have 25 years ago, whether it’s the development downtown or a flourishing arts scene. It always appears on the lists for quality of life, and that’s what really drew us here.”
Kansas City’s global profile also is changing with the arrival of Google Fiber, international recognition for the local arts scene and a series of acquisitions by foreign companies over the past three years. Frommer’s included Kansas City in its top 10 destinations for 2012, citing a pair of “world-class cultural attraction[s]” in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and the World War I Museum. In September of that year, China’s Dalian Wanda Group Corp. acquired AMC Entertainment Holdings. Japan-based SoftBank Corp. bought control of Sprint in July 2013. And in December, Belgian-based Duvel Mortgaat completed its deal to purchase a majority stake in the Boulevard Brewing Co.
The question for local trade organizations and corporations is how to translate that interest into new business opportunities.
“Twenty years ago when you talked about international business, nobody thought of Kansas City,” says Fred Baehner, who started Intermark3 Inc., his international trade and business development company, in 1986. “But today, the conversation has changed. People in Kansas City aren’t just looking for general advice; they have very specific requests to track down a certain company or distributor in a country or region.”
Attracting international attention from corporations and individuals such as Aptilon and pairing it with local companies is the reason the World Trade Center Kansas City exists. The trade association, one of 330 chapters in the world, is a joint effort between the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, KC SmartPort and the Kansas City Area Development Council. The WTC regularly holds workshops and market briefings featuring speakers from foreign embassies and government officials explaining the export and import needs of a foreign country.
This past Friday, Tebelelo Sertse, Botswana’s ambassador to the U.S., led a session at Union Station to discuss business opportunities in the African country.
“The goal is to brief local companies on how they can fit into the economic development strategies of a country and educate those countries on opportunities in the Kansas City region,” WTC analyst Jacques Lebrument said of the sessions, which typically attract between 50 and 100 people.
In an effort to help build those partnerships, he has been working since November 2010 to overhaul the Chamber of Commerce’s certificate of origin program. A certificate of origin is a document that details where a given product was manufactured or processed and helps countries assign tariffs on imported goods.
“Kansas City has always been a transportation hub,” said Lebrument. “And we believe that it makes all the sense in the world that companies can come here to Kansas City and know that we have the infrastructure set up to ship products overseas.”
Lebrument said the chamber’s shift to issuing electronic certificates has increased the number of documents it processes tenfold, with two people handling 30 to 60 certificates of origin per day.
“It’s good to have without question,” Baehner said of electronic certificates of origin, although he sees it as something that benefits existing businesses rather than spurring new development. “But the reality is that most small businesses don’t know about the resources available until they need them.”
Export Nation, a joint study from the Brookings Institution and JPMorgan Chase, ranked the Kansas City metropolitan area 33rd out of the top 100 metro communities based on export value. Exported goods have been relatively flat the last several years. Kansas City had $7.8 billion in exported goods in 2012, a decrease of $300 million from 2010. The metro area also had $3.7 billion in exported services, which includes information technology royalties and freight and port services, in 2012.
To move the needle, Baehner asserts that Kansas City needs to position itself as a strong regional hub that focuses on its competitive geographic advantages.
“A number of companies are looking to the United States to establish warehousing and there’s an opportunity for Kansas City to take advantage of that,” said Baehner, “because even relative to a city like Chicago, it’s less expensive to do business here.”
Baehner, who sits on the Industry Trade Advisory Committee on Small and Minority Business for the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Office of the United States Trade Representative, believes the best advocates for Kansas City are likely to be entrepreneurs and small companies headquartered here.
“When smaller businesses are out making calls at trade shows and overseas, they’re almost acting like business ambassadors for this area,” said Baehner.
Recently, Robert Rebori, the CEO of Bio-Microbics, was one of those ambassadors at the National Association of Home Builders’ International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas. And in his briefcase was the pocket atlas of the United States that he takes with him wherever he goes.
“People around the world are really shocked that we’re from Kansas City,” Rebori said of his company, which is based in Shawnee. “But what most people don’t realize is that we can ship anywhere around the world in two to four weeks and get it there for a lower cost.”
The atlas is a prop, one that lets him point out Kansas City on a map and then move on to discussing the wastewater and stormwater treatment products that he has sold since 1996. Rebori employs four dozen people in three locations — Shawnee, St. Louis, and Portland, Maine. He estimates that 70 percent of his revenue comes from international clients.
“We realized that most of the world didn’t have the infrastructure and central sewers that we did,” Rebori said of his company’s push to align itself with overseas distributors. “If we hadn’t switched our focus to our international business in 2000, we likely wouldn’t be here.”
The idea that Kansas City companies are doing international business is not a new one. Black & Veatch has been overseeing global projects for four decades, and the sports architecture firm Populous, which was just tabbed to conceptualize the Atlanta Braves’ new stadium, has designed facilities from Berlin to the Sprint Center. But the idea that the next Black & Veatch could be built here is what has internationally focused businesspeople believing Kansas City is primed for a breakout.
“The resources are incredible. And it’s not overcrowded yet,” says Aptilon. “On the East and West Coast, you have to fight for everything. There’s a sense of liberty here that you don’t find in other places. If Kansas City decides it wants to become an internationally oriented place, it’s totally set up to do that.”