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Attorney Mark Grobmyer Makes His 20-Year Vision Of An Arkansas Trade Center A Reality

Mention the word vision around Arkansas' international development community and the name you hear most often likely will be that of Mark Grobmyer, a 39-year-old lawyer from Little Rock with a reputation for turning dead ends into done deals.

In fact, his most recent one is about to help Arkansas and its neighboring states become major players on the international business scene.

Those who know him aren't surprised at all that Grobmyer is putting the finishing touches on a project which a lot of people told him to forget. The final step will come next year when he cuts the ribbon on the new Mid-South International Trade Center in downtown Little Rock -- and Grobmyer can hardly wait.

The trade center is the culmination of a lot of ideas that were just waiting for a place to happen. Grobmyer has carried them around with him for almost 20 years and, considering recent developments in Europe, the timing is perfect. Grobmyer expects that Arkansas goods and services soon will be in big demand there and other parts of the world.

A PARTNER IN THE Arnold, Grobmyer and Haley law firm, Grobmyer has been the moving force behind the trade center. His interest in the economic viability of the mid-South area, however, was passed on to him by political friends like John Fulbright and the late John L. McClellan, both U.S. Senators from Arkansas, and Jackson T. Stephens, the Little Rock investment banker.

Grobmyer is winding down from a fund-raiser and awards dinner in Little Rock for the non-profit trade center. Grobmyer had invited a group of ranking foreign diplomats -- known for rarely leaving Washington of New York -- for their first foray ever into America's heartland.

By all accounts, the gala weekend was a success and introduced the diplomats to Arkansas and many of its top business leaders and politicians.

As far as Grobmyer's business background is concerned, you might say he rode in on a load of wood. His family has been in the lumber business in Little Rock since 1928. Grobmyer spent his summers working in the business, but he had his mind set on a career in the legal profession. "I wanted to see what practicing law would be like."

"Some good friends of my family were lawyers and I liked hearing the stories they told," Grobmyer reveals.

"I also thought that practicing law would be a good background for business if I later chose to do that. I thought it wouldn't hurt to try law for a couple of years and I got to liking it."

As an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, Grobmyer became interested in international events after an interview with McClellan in which the senator imparted his views on the Arkansas River navigation system and the trade potential of the mid-South area.

"He worked to establish the first foreign trade zone that was inland anywhere in the United States here in Little Rock," says Grobmyer. "He thought that would be very important for the future and envisioned barges shipping goods from Little Rock to ports around the world."

A graduate of the UA law school, Grobmyer also studied international law and business relations at the University of Exeter in England. He also conducted extensive interviews with Fulbright, who has long been concerned with international trade.

In conjunction with the trade center, Grobmyer developed an annual award in Fulbright's name for individuals who make outstanding contributions to the field of international development. Stephens, chairman of Stephens Inc., accepted the first award at the recent fund-raiser, which pulled in more than $100,000 to help establish the trade center.

"Most people know Fulbright better for the scholar program," Grobmyer says. "He thought there were two cornerstones to peace worldwide -- one is better understanding and education and the second is international trade and economic development.

"It's a nice fit because the Fulbright Scholar Program has educated maybe 70,000 people worldwide. Most of those people now are business and political leaders in their respective countries. What a nice way to get introductions to these countries and help them learn more about Arkansas."

Through his law firm, which specializes in international law and often represents major companies in international business transactions, Grobmyer did a lot of homework before proceeding with the plans for the trade center.

He and a friend, Jim Moses of the Allison, Moses and Redden architectural/development firm in Little Rock, visited other trade centers in Dallas and New Orleans but weren't particularly impressed with what they saw. These were little more than offices and provided no way to see products or learn about services in the region. Grobmyer thought he could do better.

When Grobmyer talks about the center, he makes it sound a lot easier than it was. Wally Allen, a partner in the hotel management firm of Goff & Associates and chairman of the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission, had talked with Grobmyer for years about the possibility of having a trade center in Little Rock.

"His interest in it was piqued by the Stephenses as he traveled around and did legal work for them. He ran into a lot of dead ends and people telling him he was crazy but he wouldn't give up," recalls Allen.

"I think the difference was in trying to explain the concept," he continues. "People didn't think we could do it in Little Rock. Arkansas has always been a little bit insecure. Nobody ever believed that we could get any ranking diplomats to come here either."

Twenty-eight of them, however, showed up to pay tribute to Fulbright and Stephens, check out some Arkansas products and even make a few deals.

"The South generally is now better recognized as the Sun Belt, but 10 years ago, people thought the South was backward and had a lot of problems," explains Grobmyer. Lack of economic opportunity, in fact, often is cited as a major reason why young people leave the South. Grobmyer, himself, could have written his ticket out a long time ago but chose to stay in Arkansas.

"I guess I owed something to it. It had been pretty good to me and I sort of felt like it was my duty. We can have anything here anyone else has if we roll up our sleeves and get to work.

"It's always kind of perplexed me to hear about all the bad things and that it always has to be the government that has to fix them. Well, the government is us."

MAYBE THE LEGAL training plays a part here, but determination is cited as one of Grobmyer's trademarks.

"He's single-handedly pushed this trade center along," says Moses, who has known Grobmyer since their high school days. "He's got a phenomenal amount of persistence and deserves an enormous amount of credit."

Moses says that Grobmyer simply has the personality to get a tough job done. "One of the reasons I've always liked him is that he likes people and he has a terrific amount of confidence in his own ideas and those are always good blends."

Grobmyer is quick with a word about the trade center, and the prospects for international trade coming out of his home state. Yet, during a recent interview, he's reluctant to talk much about himself at all.

"There's some biographical information around here on me if you want some of that stuff," he says in a self-effacing manner. Clearly, he relishes talking more about the trade center, a project which has occupied his thoughts for years.

The center, however, is only the most recent challenge in a professional life crowded with achievement. Grobmyer has served as a Special Justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court, as chairman of the Arkansas State Merit System Board and as special chairman of the Arkansas Claims Commission.

When he can find the time, Grobmyer writers articles for the Arkansas Lawyer magazine and often is the featured speaker at legal education programs in the area of securities and financial law. Currently, he serves on a five-member task force on lender liability legislation for the American Bar Association and is active in other professional groups.

Grobmyer also has worked in the Little Rock Rotary Club's youth program, an interest which no doubt has been stimulated by his three sons, Jack, Andrew and Mark. Otherwise, you might find Grobmyer on the tennis court or else out knocking around a golf ball.

With most of the hard work on the trade center behind him now, Grobmyer isn't about to let slide an opportunity to gain more publicity for it. The center, he believes, is crucial to the economic health of the state. Grobmyer has invested a tremendous amount of time in the project but is quick to share its success. His business connections didn't hurt, either.

Jack Stephens, for example, has been close to Grobmyer's family for years and greatly influenced his views on international affairs (he's also Stephens' godson).

"Stephens believes, and I agree with him, that the best way to be involved in international affairs is through partnerships," says Grobmyer. "If you have a friend or agent in another country that knows what it is you have to offer, they'll know what's going on in their country and whether there's a need for it."

Grobmyer is one of the country's leading authorities on international business law and his firm, established in 1985, has done deals around the world. In his work for Stephens' export trading company, Grobmyer began to understand that there might be no limits to the value of a trade center for Arkansas and the rest of the region.

As an example, Grobmyer recently represented a Canadian firm which purchased a chain of fried-chicken restaurants from a group of Arkansans. "They really liked the city, the state and the region. They wanted to know more about it and what they could possibly take back to where they're from and sell and make some money," says Grobmyer.

Interested outsiders, however, generally have nowhere to turn to see Arkansas products. "About the best you could do," Grobmyer notes, "was to put them in a car and drive them around for a couple of days but most of them don't have time to do that."

Time also became an important consideration when Grobmyer was working to set up the trade center. In 1992, 12 European countries will unite to operate under a single customs and tariff system, a change which will expedite foreign trade. Grobmyer sees it as a positive move and one which Arkansas businesses can use to their advantage.

Still, he has been concerned about what he sees as a negative image, both on the local and national levels, of international trade. As barriers are beginning to fall the world over, however, he would like to see other trade constraints eased, too.

"In the last presidential campaign, at least one of the candidates was wanting to build a wall around the United States," Grobmyer says. "The last time anything like that happened, we had the Great Depression. You can't exist as an island, as any economist can tell you."

Grobmyer has found that business executives generally have the perception that they don't need to sell overseas. Others simply lack the confidence to market their products there. The trade center will provide a way to help them do that and work in cooperation with the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission, the local office of the Department of commerce and the new Export Finance Authority, which provides assistance to businesses on the documentation necessary to ship and get paid for products.

The AIDC's Maria Haley has worked with Grobmyer on the trade center and believes it ought to enhance the image of the region overseas. She credits Grobmyer with motivating and inspiring the task.

Haley says that the AIDC would exhibit in the trade center and also may help in other areas such as staffing. "It brings an opportunity for Arkansas companies to increase their sales," Haley explains, "and will help focus local attention on international trade and the importance of international economic development."

Grobmyer agrees and also believes the trade center should be a sort of two-way street. In addition to Arkansas products like yogurt, chain-saws and parking meters, visitors to the center also will see displays by foreign concerns. Even financial institutions that can handle international deals like Union Bank of Switzerland will be represented.

"We hope to have them network with local banks and provide bigger sources of capital," says Grobmyer. "A lot of them have hit their heads up against the wall in New York or other places. Others see this as a real opportunity to come in and find new products that they can take back with them."

Neighboring states also have expressed interest in the trade center and Grobmyer has been in touch with interested parties in Oklahoma, Tennessee and other states. He doesn't see a conflict with other trade programs in the region. Grobmyer says he has found himself playing the role of diplomat in coordinating support for the trade center, an admission that brings up an obvious question. Do you plan to enter politics?

"Politics is important and it's important to elect good people," he says, but defers on the question of his own involvement.

A student of politics, Grobmyer doesn't like to be pinned down to one party and has worked for both Democrats and Republicans. His wife, Libby, was a delegate to last year's Democratic National Convention and went in with the idea of supporting Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee for president. A native of Cookeville, Tenn., Libby Grobmyer is a friend and former neighbor of the Gore family.

While he isn't interested in holding office, Grobmyer is a firm believer in the ability of the private sector to succeed sometimes where politicians fail or get stalled by the political process.

With the new emphasis on international trade, Grobmyer believes that political constraints to a favorable trading climate are beginning to fall, thanks largely to private business. Grobmyer got a first-hand look last year when he visited France to gather information on the Paris World Trade Center, a new facility which Grobmyer used as a pattern of sorts for the trade center here.

Grobmyer, in fact, began to feel a sense of urgency about pursuing European business in anticipation of the 1992 unification. He reads constantly in order to keep abreast of international developments. Visitors to his office will find issues of The Economist magazine stacked around along with updates and treatises from the International Bar Association.

"It was important to get going and moving on the trade center," he says. "If you don't start thinking about that kind of thing, then you can get blind-sided."

That's where the idea of vision kicks in.

"If you have all the business you can handle, then you don't have to worry about selling overseas," reasons Grobmyer. "But what's happened in the last couple of years is that things have kind of gotten outside of anybody's control. When Europe unifies, it will be easier for us to do business between the countries over there than it will between different states in the U.S."

European countries, for example, will have one set of insurance regulations while the U.S. has 50 different insurance departments for each state and no federal insurance commission. One side effect of the unification may be that U.S. markets will shrink as more European goods become available. Arkansas businesses, for example, may need to start looking at European markets.

U.S. companies also may find that, after unification, their package and labeling will become standardized to help in exporting their products.

"Europe is going to go from having been handicapped from all this provincialism for so long to be ahead of us," Grobmyer predicts.

THE AWARDS DINNER, in part, provided an opportunity to show the diplomats products from the region. One of them was so impressed with Arkansas' abundance of rice and the possibility of buying it that he was prepared to take some with him back to his country. Apparently, no item is too small. Grobmyer points out that some U.S. companies are doing millions of dollars of business each year by shipping toothpicks to Japan.

And, in setting up the trade center, Grobmyer wanted to go first class.

"When we started this, we ask ourselves if we wanted light bulbs hanging from the ceiling or do we want track lighting that will really look good? Well, it didn't take long for everyone involved with the project to say that if we're going to do it, let's do it right.

"If we're able to do what we want, the booth space rental will be very, very low. Our goal is to have it not be more than a hundred dollars a month for the average exhibit."

The Technology Center in downtown Little Rock will be home to the trade center. The building also houses the Arkansas Development Finance Authority and is within walking distance of downtown hotels.

Those who visit the trade center will get to see products first-hand and can learn more about them by viewing video tapes. Visitors ready to make a deal will be referred to the business, the AIDC and U.S. Commerce Department and other appropriate agencies.

Many companies, Grobmyer says, will spend $600 to exhibit for only three days at a trade show. Some may wish to exhibit at the center on a part-time basis but Grobmyer points out that at least their displays won't be gathering dust in a warehouse in between trade shows.

Grobmyer believes the trade center is the beginning of an economic boom for our area similar to the one Atlanta and the Southeast has experienced in recent years. "If we can just do a fraction of what they've done, then the economy of this state would pick up considerably."

All of a sudden, he seems to have sold a lot of people on this vision. Now, the only problem with the trade center is that the interest shown by potential exhibitors has exceeded available space and may delay the opening until more is located. It's the kind of thing that tends to happen to people who don't believe in dead ends.

Even a person who has known Grobmyer for only an hour or two, shouldn't be surprised at all to learn that his favorite quote is this one from playwright George Bernard Shaw:

"Some people see things as they are and say why. I think of things that never were and say why not?"

PHOTO : "Some good friends of my family were lawyers and I liked hearing the stories they told. I

PHOTO : also thought that practicing law would be a good background for business if I later chose

PHOTO : to do that."

PHOTO : Grobmyer is one of the country's leading authorities on international business law and his

PHOTO : firm has done deals around the world.

Rod Lorenzen is a free-lance writer living in Little Rock.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Journal Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Profile; Mark Grobmeyer
Author:Lorenzen, Rod
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Biography
Date:Dec 4, 1989
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