Despite the state’s position as the top exporter in the country, experts say that many smaller businesses have no idea where to begin in turning their company into an active exporter. Last Friday, Valley companies got the chance to network with other companies and learn more about opportunities in global trade at the seventh annual Southern California International Trade Conference at the Hilton Universal City & Towers. Although attendees included large companies that are well-versed in international trade, the event was most informative for smaller companies. Jessie Shafton is a perfect example of the type of business owner most likely to benefit from Friday’s conference. Shafton began selling her own brand of skin care products to customers in the United States and abroad two years ago. Recently she turned to the International Trade Center at Pierce College to help her business better navigate foreign waters. Working with Pierce College’s Bert Sanchez and officials from the U.S. Commerce Department, Shafton was able to find out about international trade shows, like one coming up in Hong Kong that she plans to attend. She also got help avoiding common schemes afflicting companies attempting to export their goods. “Especially in Russia, there are a lot of companies from the U.S. that were swindled. They would send 50 percent of the payment, and when you shipped your product they would stop the payment,” Shafton said. “They explained how to avoid that.” Sanchez is the head of the International Trade Center at Pierce College. Speakers at Friday’s conference explained to small and medium companies, like Shafton’s Chatsworth-based Jing Cosmetics, the importance of taking the international market seriously. K-Swiss experience Steven Nichols, president of K-Swiss Inc. said that the company’s entry into the foreign market helped build it into the business it is today. “When I got involved in K-Swiss in 1987, 50 percent of the business was done in Japan,” Nichols said. “Early on Japan played a very large role in our financial stability. Much of the funds derived from the profits of our early sale in Japan were used to build business, first in the United States and then abroad.” Jack Kyser, senior economist with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., who also spoke to conference attendees, said that Los Angeles-area companies have a built-in advantage because of their geography. “International trade has done a magnificent job creating a lot of opportunity,” said Kyser “A lot of nations are interested in what comes out of Los Angeles. I point out to people that Los Angeles is still one of the great worldwide brands, if you say L.A. everybody knows what you’re talking about and has some idea of what’s going on here.” Sanchez urged companies that want to further explore their options in international trade to visit the college. The center has been up and running, courtesy of a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, since January of 2004. “One of the things we try to do is create ‘how-to’ workshops,” Sanchez said. He said that small and medium sized businesses “usually have no clue about where the profit is or how to get at extra profits. They see a saturated market and throw up their hands.” Answering questions Sanchez said answers to most of the questions small or medium-sized companies are likely to have can be easily answered at the International Trade Center. Businesses can get free market research reports either by country or industry through the U.S. Commerce Department. The center also researches businesses within different countries, primarily throughout Eastern and Central Europe. Sanchez said he’s able to identify businesses that are already licensed importers of American-made products and pinpoint those looking for specific products, like cosmetics. People like Shafton, who are looking for ways to develop an overseas presence, are also welcome to attend weekly meetings at the International Trade Center where trade specialists are on hand to assist fledgling exporters. The services extend beyond market research and company introductions. Sanchez said that, by working through the U.S. Commerce Department, businesses can even arrange to meet potential customers at U.S. embassies in foreign countries.