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Doing business abroad, over coffee and muffins.

Would you like to know the insurance environment in Poland? How to select a business site in Haiti? The shipping routes and rates to Australia? The top ten companies most likely to buy your product in Spain? The answers may be as close as the chamber of commerce.

Affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Chambers of Commerce, or AmChams, are private, non-profit membership organizations that can supply companies with valuable insights into the business climate of a foreign nation. Currently, AmChams are located in 55 foreign countries. The typical member is a U.S. company operating in one of those countries or a U.S. citizen working there. The AmCham counterpart, located in the U.S., is called a binational. Its members are U.S. firms that do business in or with other countries or foreign companies that do business in the U.S.

Wayne Forrest is executive director of the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce (AICC), based in New York. Like most binationals, his outfit helps its members learn the business temperature and the general culture of a country by such methods as:

* Providing specifics on credit sources, licensing requirements, taxes, shipping routes and rates, site selection, import and export regulations, customs duties, joint ventures, legal workings, and insurance;

* Arranging informal breakfast meetings between foreign-company executives and American executives;

* Briefing U.S. employees new to a region on the customs there;

* Counseling relocated families on what to expect in housing, schools, and health care; and

* Interviewing U.S. executives to find a good employee fit for managerial positions, given the peculiarities of a foreign country.

"Our basic purpose is to be a forum for exchanging information and making policy recommendations on behalf of business," Forrest explains. "We get information from both American and Indonesian companies. And, unlike a trade association, we're not a special-interest group because we have members from many different kinds of companies. So, we really can focus on trading and investment policy."

Companies that have taken advantage of the binational network include Aetna Insurance, which asked the Indonesian organization to investigate whether one of its female managers would be accepted in the Moslem country. Toys "R" Us used the AICC to find Indonesian firms that could manufacture bicycles for the toy company. And Avon got AICC's assistance in sorting out the Indonesian investment laws before constructing a toiletries plant there.

Paul Mandry, assistant general counsel of international legal at Avon, says his firm enrolls in the AmCham or binational for every country in which Avon has business interests. "We develop a variety of contacts that way," he explains. Mandry estimates that Avon spends more than $100,000 annually in membership dues for the two types of networks.

The AICC charges, on average, $600 a year for a corporate membership (the amount depends somewhat on company size, says Executive Director Forrest) and $100 for individuals. Because the AmChams and binationals are privately held, however, they charge a range of prices, topping out at about $3,000, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Avon's Mandry explains the AICC's relatively low fees: "The organization is trying to encourage companies, especially small, entrepreneurial firms, to invest in a less developed country," so it doesn't make membership prohibitively expensive. (The AICC has more than 170 members, about 140 corporations and 30 individuals.)

Those fees entitle a member to a good bit of free advice, as long as the AICC doesn't have to expend money on or invest a significant amount of research time into coming up with answers. ("Simple questions for free," Forrest advertises.) Say a member gets a memo that has small segments written in Indonesian. The AICC will do a quick translation at no charge. On the other hand, if a member needs an entire document translated, the AICC assesses a fee based on the scope of the project.

Companies that aren't members also can take advantage of binational services, but they'll always be charged at least a basic research fee. But frequently this charge approaches the cost of membership, says Forrest, so the company will go ahead and join.

Any down side to becoming a member of an AmCham or a binational? "Well, it's more a function of how much time you have to devote to the chambers," says Avon's Mandry, "That's where the limitations come in."

"For us, it's much more important for our executives to be active in the AmCham based in the foreign country," than for Avon to deal with a New York-based binational, he continues. "The problems come up abroad, so there's where we need to develop relationships."

But should companies worry about sharing too much information over an AmCham luncheon, since competing firms often join the same network? Mandry insists that's no problem, as long as you're cautions: "Companies tend to pick those problems that are unique to their firm to solicit the help of competitors. When executives who are exchanging their business experiences in various countries have a common problem, they just need to be careful about discussing details, whether for antitrust reasons or for simple competitive marketing reasons."

Other benefits offered by many of the binationals are publications, such as a quarterly newsletter or memoranda that alert members to policy changes or other relevant shifts in a country's business environment. According to the AICC's Forrest, some of the better-funded AmChams and binationals--the European ones, in particular--provide more extensive and more frequent reports.

But wouldn't an international consultant, for instance, be a bigger help than an AmCham or a binational? Yes, in some cases. "Consultants usually offer a much higher level of service," explains Forrest. "For instance, we don't do market feasibility studies, where a consultant would." The chambers do, however, invite consultants to become members of their organizations and often refer to them corporations in need of in-depth advice.

Sixty-one AmChams are established in countries ranging from Argentina to Hong Kong to Saudi Arabia. To get more information on the network and the binational system, contact the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at 1615 H Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20062, or call (202) 463-5460. For $5, you'll get a directory of the locations abroad; for $3, you'll get a list of those based in the U.S.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Financial Executives International
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:American Chambers of Commerce services for US companies doing business in foreign countries
Author:Couch, Robin L.
Publication:Financial Executive
Date:Jul 1, 1991
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