Johnny Brown has spent the last two years on the sidelines, and he's itching to get back in the game.
After a 37-year career working for the U.S. Commercial Service in postings across Africa and the Middle East, the 61-year-old settled in Conyers, just east of Atlanta, to be near his daughters and his wife's family.
Mr. Brown, a gregarious South Carolina native with a winsome smile, says he's officially retired, but instead of kicking back, he is relaunching a consultancy aimed at using his nearly four decades of knowledge and contacts to help U.S. companies crack South Africa.
“I'm back at this again, and it feels good,” said Mr. Brown, president and CEO of African Marketing & Consulting Services LLC.
If retirement is about doing what you love, business development is an appropriate way for Mr. Brown to pass the time. Having spent most of his adult life working in places like Cote d'Ivoire, Kuwait, Nigeria and South Africa, the tall, easy-going black businessman feels most at home when he's fostering cross-cultural connections. That or playing a round of golf.
His last full posting was a nearly six-year stint as minister counselor for southern Africa at the U.S. Commercial Service in Johannesburg, South Africa. The country that captured his heart also happens to be an ideal entry point for U.S. companies looking to do business on the continent, Mr. Brown said.
“The best jump-off place for a U.S. company would be South Africa,” he said. “It's the heart of the whole economic region.”
While sub-Saharan Africa only accounts for about 5 percent of total U.S. foreign trade currently, countries there are quickly growing an appetite for U.S. products. Interviewed last month by GlobalAtlanta, U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Donald Gips said that the continent will play an integral role in President Obama's plan to double U.S. exports over the next five years.
To support this growth, Africa needs infrastructure – telecommunications, power generation and broadband – that U.S. companies are in prime position to supply, Mr. Brown said.
But too often, American firms have faulty perceptions of Africa. Fearing the unknown, some firms ignore the continent completely. Others that do make the jump are on the opposite end of the spectrum, showing too much confidence for their own good.
Still others come with preconceived notions that Africa is an uncivilized place where they can “make a killing” quickly without really investing in the people or respecting their culture, Mr. Brown said in a recent interview.
He recalled an experience hosting a U.S. delegation to Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire. When meeting the country's vice president, instead of standing up and respectfully presenting his business card, an American executive flung it across the table. The arrogance appalled Mr. Brown.
“My jaw dropped to the floor. They had not been properly briefed before they came down,” he said.
With strong connections to Commerce Department leaders and the thriving community of black American businesspeople in Johannesburg, Mr. Brown sees himself as a resource who can help companies strike a healthy balance between skepticism and optimism and avoid cultural miscues in South Africa and surrounding countries.
“The more we exchange ideas, the more we talk to each other, the more we do things together, the more we get involved with each other, the more we understand the different cultures of one another, the better off we're going to be,” he said.
Vince Farley, former head of the now-dissolved South African American Business Association in Atlanta and a former U.S. diplomat in Cote d'Ivoire and Mauritania, said Mr. Brown's embassy ties are extremely valuable. Embassies often not only have competent American staff, but they also employ permanent commercial employees called “foreign-service nationals” who know the language and culture and have up to 25 years of experience helping U.S. companies enter their respective markets.
“The reason I still know Africa is that I can call up old friends,” Mr. Farley said.
Going it alone in South Africa is feasible for large multinationals like Exxon-Mobil Corp., but it's “essential” for smaller firms to take advantage of embassy resources, he said. The U.S. Commercial Service helped arrange a recent trip for news outlets including GlobalAtlanta to report on South Africa's preparations for the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament.
“Working with someone like Johnny Brown with extensive experience with the U.S. government working in South Africa is a smart move,” Mr. Farley said. “The U.S. embassy is totally tuned into what's going on in the country.”
U.S. government help is a particularly important asset in South Africa, where the government plays a heavy role in the economy and the regulatory environment is complex, said Sebastian Mathews, a South African consultant and Georgia State University alumnus.
To provide opportunities for groups previously disadvantaged under the apartheid regime, the government has enacted an affirmative-action system called Black Economic Empowerment, or BEE. Companies are scored on how well they integrate blacks and other groups into their employment base and ownership structures. Knowing the system's ins and outs is vital, as a good BEE score helps ensure that companies are considered for government procurement contracts that make up a significant portion of economic activity in South Africa.
“Every country has its quirks: the U.S. has lobbyists, China has guanxi, or relationships, and South Africa has BEE, so having a commercial service that is proactive helps as they point out the pitfalls and show you the ropes,” said Mr. Mathews.
Mr. Farley and others hope that Mr. Brown's new venture will rekindle a relationship between South Africa and Georgia that seemed poised to effect significant business exchange in the early days after apartheid but has struggled to maintain traction in recent years.
In the mid-1990s, Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell took multiple delegations to South Africa. As business links developed, talk emerged of a potential sister-city relationship that would foster economic ties while highlighting a shared heritage of civil rights struggle. It never materialized.
From 1997-2004, Georgia had a trade representative in South Africa who hosted successive delegations headlined by governors Zell Miller and Roy Barnes.
There were some successful export deals, but few Georgia companies were willing to actually set up operations in South Africa, a necessary step in building the right business and sales relationships in the country, said Donald Keene, Georgia's former trade representative in South Africa.
“People here place a very high value on face-to-face meetings. That's sort of the strategy of developing the relationship,” Mr. Keene told GlobalAtlanta by phone from Johannesburg.
Mr. Keene, currently a legal adviser for U.S. Agency for International Development in Johannesburg, said his relationship with Georgia ended in 2004 as the state shifted its focus to attracting more inbound investment.
Mr. Keene first went to live in South Africa in 1987 and met Mr. Brown during the latter's tour there from 2002-07.
“I have a lot of respect for him and admiration for him as a commercial professional and as a person,” Mr. Keene said. “He certainly made a lot of friends and professional connections here in South Africa and in the region during his time here that would be very valuable in bringing things back to life [with Georgia]."
For his part, Mr. Brown is eager to put together trade missions, webinars and educational programs, lest the U.S. miss out on abundant opportunities.
“I'm very bullish on South Africa,” he said. “I just think that there's really our next frontier, and not just South Africa but the whole of southern Africa, led by South Africa.”
The U.S. is at a disadvantage because American businesses pulled out during apartheid to satisfy U.S.-led sanctions on doing business with the ostracized regime. Some Europeans and other competitors stayed, and Americans were seen by some as abandoning the South African people, Mr. Brown said.
“It is going to take much more effort on our part to bridge some of those gaps that came about during that time. We're chipping away slowly, but there's still a lot of work to be done,” he said.