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Bill Noll takes the trade helm.

Unlike many public figures, Bill Noll listens carefully before speaking, not interrupting as a lengthy question is formulated. He has a distinctive way of pausing after the question has been asked to reflect on his response, as if shaping his own remarks with the care and concentration of a master carver.

Noll was tapped in March to be the state's new international trade boss. The position has been revamped by the Hickel administration, shifted from the ministration, shifted from the governor's office back to the Department of Commerce and Economic Development. Noll's official designation is deputy commissioner of international trade. According to Noll, the change reflects the administration's view that international trade will be managed as a "system of thought, rather than a hierarchy."

Nearly a half-dozen agencies are involved in trade promotion in one way or another. "It's something like an Oriental meal," Noll says. "Instead of us all ordering separately, you get spaghetti, I get steak, he gets fried chicken. We all have the meal in the middle of the table, and we are going to share whatever is there."

Noll denies that the stature of his office is diminished by the new arrangement. In fact, he predicts improved performance in the area of trade will result.

The change creates "one level ground," Noll says. "We're all playing this game together. The fact is that we are all representing one set of shareholders - Alaskans - with one big set of resources. All we are trying to do is pull together so that we can be as efficient as possible, more productive perhaps than we've been before."

International trade has become a pretty big game for Alaska. Exports last year grew by a billion dollars, to $3.6 billion.

While not all of the trade volume represents products or commodities originating in Alaska, even the substantial level of air freight exports - goods leaving the U.S. and clearing through customs in Alaska - provides an economic boon to the state. According to John Kim, director of the Alaska Center for International Business, air freight exports from Anchorage are at least partly responsible for about 600 local jobs.

The state's new trade proponent, Noll is a 53-year-old Army veteran with an eclectic professional resume that includes work in television sales and management and in industrial communications, as well as a stint as press secretary to U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski. He also is no stranger to Alaska's trade development.

Chief among credentials for his new job are the 11 years he has spent nurturing Alaska coal shipments to Korea as vice president of Suneel Alaska Corp., his post prior to joining state government. In that capacity, and as a city councilman and mayor of Seward, Noll has worked extensively with previous administrations to advance trade agendas in both the public and private sectors.

Bill Bittner, an Anchorage attorney specializing in international trade, says Noll has distinguished himself with stamina and persistence in the grueling world of East/West dealmaking. "I'm very pleased that he's been selected. He brings a lot of experience in the real business world to that position. Having gone through the crucible of that experience, he has come out wiser and stronger," adds Bittner.

Noll is quick to praise the accomplishments of his predecessors. When speaking about his goal of greater productivity, it is in the manner of building on previous foundations, rather than of changing directions or of making up for lost time.

As a result of Army tours of duty and his tenure at Suneel, Noll is well traveled in the Orient and in Europe. While the Pacific Rim will continue to receive priority attention, Noll also is interested in expanding ties with Europe and sees important, natural linkages there to be developed. This is good news for some who feel the state has previously neglected emerging trade opportunities in the West.

Bittner predicts that pragmatism will govern Noll's approach to Alaska's trading partners. This could take the form of greater caution in the emotionally exhilarating - but financially risky - adventures with the Soviets or of a sharp defense of Alaska's longstanding - and some say overly dependent - ties with the Japanese.

"I'll tell you what kind of vassal we are," says Noll, coming as close to bristling as his even-handed demeanor will allow. "Suppose we don't export anymore, ever. Then we'll see who's vassal and who's lord. We don't need to get to that point at all. It's not a lord-vassal relationship at all. It is a matter of demand and supply, supply and demand. It is a very strong relationship."

According to a new strategic plan drawn up by the Department of Commerce and Economic Development called "Positioning Alaska for the 21st Century," international trade will be a centerpiece of the Hickel administration. Noll explains that carrying out the plan will involve four main areas of emphasis:

* Marketing North Slope natural gas;

* Positioning Alaska as a premier location for air cargo warehousing and transit between the United States, Asia and Europe;

* Aggressively pursuing the "Alaskanization" of fisheries to enhance export value;

* Enticing large financial institutions, both foreign and domestic, to open local offices for the purpose of managing the state's Permanent Fund investment portfolios.

According to Noll, the most important roles for the state in fostering trade are making entrepreneurs aware of value-added opportunities in the international marketplace, seeing to it that they have capital to develop and promote their products, and generally selling, selling, selling Alaska to the world.

He concedes that in the case of the administration's first priority - a natural gas pipeline to supply Asian customers - the selling job is a domestic rather than an international challenge, at least at the moment.

Despite Yukon Pacific Corp.'s recent decision to lay off several employees and slow the pace of its gas-line engineering work, Noll stands firmly by market projections showing that "recognized demand" for the gas in Japan, Korea and Taiwan is "twice what we need to get started."

The problem, says Noll, is that while Japan's interest in the project has grown significantly, gas producers - Arco Alaska, Exxon and BP Exploration (Alaska) - have failed to signal their determination to move forward. He adds that even a conditional commitment to sell the gas could break the logjam. Although Noll notes the producers have given encouraging signs, Noll says, "We have not yet seen them belly up to the bar in a positive enough way."

Less visible but no less daunting in their complexity and degree of challenge are the other "megaprojects," as Noll tags his priorities. Two of these rely heavily on Alaska's strategic geographical location: international warehousing and air transit, and increasing opportunities for residents to catch, process and export more fish.

The key to the so-called "just-in-time inventory" concept that makes Alaska attractive as a warehousing location is a market of customers 750 million strong in Europe, Asia and North America. "Manufacturers could put their high-quality, high-priced inventory here and have it delivered very, very quickly to the consumers," Noll says.

Instead of a warehouse in each market, a centrally located warehouse supplies several markets from one point. Noll say he'll push manufacturers as well as transportation companies to emulate the much-heralded Federal Express facility at Anchorage International Airport.

The chief impediments in this area are simply the old perceptions of Alaska as a cold, distant place. Noll has encountered many people in his travels who remember Anchorage from airport refueling stops as the place with the most expensive noodle soup in the world.

"As a possible business location, it hasn't been thought about yet," says Noll. While the air-cargo industry eventually will be attracted by the success stories of Federal Express and United Parcel Service, he feels the state's role is to speed the process.

As Alaska's warehouse infrastructure matures, it may eventually help to improve the state's fish export position, eliminating the stop made in Seattle by the vast majority of Orient-bound fish products. Noll expects the $1.5 billion in Alaska fish exports to grow and have a dramatic impact on state and local economies.

"The Americanization of the fisheries was the event of the '80s. Let's consider the Alaskanization of the fisheries as the positive event of the '90s. Every 10 percent increase would mean another $150 million in trade on our shores rather than somewhere else. Big number, lots of jobs," says Noll.

Capital for financing the Alaskanization of fisheries might be generated by the fourth of Noll's initiatives: a plan to use the $12 billion Permanent Fund as the basis for creating an international business center, without even touching the corpus or earnings of the fund.

"The golden rule is, 'He who has the most makes the rules.' One of the rules could be, if you like to handle any of our money, you come here and open up a branch in Alaska," Noll says. "Some people would say we are not a money center here. Maybe not, but in answer I respond: What a colonial attitude that is. We are generating billions of dollars a year; we have more money in the bank than most nations do, and we are not a money center?"

Noll says the issue is attitude. He explains that Alaskans "have decided not to look at ourselves as a wealthy money center." Noll adds that he has pitched his idea to some of his longstanding and trusted Asian contacts and he has found them "fascinated" with the concept.

"The quality of people who are going to come here are going to do more than simply handle the Permanent Fund," says Noll. "Suddenly, there is going to be access to venture capital, to investment capital, at would otherwise have to seek in places like New York or San Francisco or Paris or London or Tokyo. We can Alaskanize those capitalists by having them here."

Although promoting the financial center concept may seem like a lot to bite off, those who know Noll expect him to pursue the idea with the practicality and doggedness they've come to expect from the man. Persistence is a quality Noll says he admires in others and tries to emulate. Many agree it is a crucial attribute for anyone serious about staying the course in international trade.

For Noll, the course is clear: to put Alaska, "the greatest region on earth," on the economic map of the world. He says, "We've done marvelously well in having our exports grow, so one major goal will be to at least maintain what we've got going. There is so much room to do good. One doesn't have to do everything well, just a few more good things will do."

Getting To Know Bill Noll

Bill Noll became "intensely interested" in international trade during a Hawaiian vacation. While visiting the East/West Center there "a light went on over my head," he says. For the state's deputy commissioner of international trade, the visit illuminated a path he has followed ever since.

Colleagues say Bill Noll's style embodies idealism and practicality. The discipline that keeps him at his desk for long hours - Noll is a confessed overworker - likely was instilled by the Jesuit training he received in high school and college.

Citing the strong classical and philosophical grounding of the curriculum, Noll notes, "Those are things that don't leave you, you can always turn to them."

To unwind, Noll turns to golf and crossword puzzles. Such activities demand the intense concentration and focus that characterize Noll's pursuit of the Hickel administration's trade agenda. Following are his observations on many of the issues he is concentrating on in his new job.

On trading with Japan: Value means a lot in Japan, and I believe it is a special opportunity for us.

On trading with Europe: We must think about Europe as far as redistribution because that's where the stuff is coming from. Europe is not only a natural, it's a must.

On the future of just-in-time inventory facilities for Alaska: I submit to you that colleagues of the directors of Federal Express will be drawn up here. Or the business logistics division of Federal Express will go on to find corporate kin who will come up and open a warehouse. But I don't want to leave that to chance. I think it's very, very important that the state leap on those opportunities like hair on a gorilla.

On his perception that the Department of Commerce and Economic Development is newly energized: Now is a real chance to use the pile-on effect used in a football game. Get in there and reinforce success and paint a perfect role for government to play.

On predicting the future of Alaskan trade: Ten billion dollars in exports by 2000. I think that's an easy one.

On Alaskans: We are a mighty potent bunch, and proud of ourselves, indeed.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Alaska Business Publishing Company, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:deputy commissioner of international trade in the Department of Commerce and Economic Development
Author:Richardson, Jeffrey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Aug 1, 1991
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