Korean investment and trade may be going strong in Georgia, but there’s one sales channel that can always be problematic when you’re crossing the world to enter a new market: procurement.
Even the closest trading partners of the U.S. like Canada and Mexico face challenges netting lucrative federal or state contracts.
“The biggest hurdle is just the same hurdle that U.S. companies face, which is relationship-building,” said Myra Cisse, president of the Atlanta-based Government Contractors Association, a trade group for companies that sell to the government. “That’s where we come in.”
Beyond networking, regulation also poses a challenge, especially when trying to decipher it through a second language from 6,000 miles away.
But letting unfamiliarity stymy trade can hurt both sides, Ms. Cisse said. Governments can overpay while failing to gain the most innovative or current products or technologies. And overseas suppliers miss out on potentially huge deals.
Korean companies only export about 2 percent of their goods and services to the U.S., despite receiving preferential treatment through the recently renegotiated Korea-U.S. free-trade agreement. The country is also a staunch U.S. military ally.
Ms. Cisse’s association is helping close this distance thanks to relationships with Korean organizations that have blossomed over the last three years, somewhat by chance.
The organization’s Heavy Hitters, Big Spenders conference in Atlanta this week was set to attract multiple Korean companies certified by the country’s Ministry of Health that were aiming to gain a schedule needed to sell to the U.S. Veterans Administration.
The Heavy Hitters event, mainly targeted at small U.S. businesses, also featured a chance to interact with the General Services Administration, or the GSA — which makes buying decisions for the military and other agencies — and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.
It was the latest iteration for the Global Business Development Initiative the association has launched with its Korean partners. GCA in 2017 won a contract to help the Korean Public Procurement Services, a government buying arm, set up a booth and a matchmaking event for seven Korean companies at a public works expo in the United States.
Partnering with an American firm is one way to dip a toe into the market.
“We’re teaming them with a U.S. company that’s already selling similar products and services that complement what the Korean manufacturer brings to the table,” Ms. Cisse said.
Since then, Ms. Cisse has made six trips to Korea, most recently along with a colleague who was helping to vet even more companies interested in expanding to the U.S.
The unlikely relationship started when Ms. Cisse got a call out of the blue from a Korean professor who had lived abroad and whose expertise lay in helping companies navigate the world of government sales, both in emerging and developed markets.
Man Gi Kim was an adjunct professor at Sungshin Women’s College at the time running a program on international competitive bidding and procurement management. Now he’s at the Seoul-based business school of the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, or KAIST, where he is program director for the Center for Global Public Procurement.
Like previous trips, Ms. Cisse’s most recent visit was a whirlwind.
“It’s always just going, hitting the ground running, meetings all day every day,” she said.
In July Ms. Cisse visited KAIST again and met with Dr. Kim, who she says is the association’s best advocate in helping Korean firms overcome their hesitation to work with private consultants. He’s also a consultant with Yulchon Law Firm, one of the country’s largest.
Ms. Cisse has been impressed with the warmth and hospitality she’s encountered in Korea, but also the variety and quality products that might be made available to U.S. entities through procurement relationships. She has seen suppliers of LED lighting, toner cartridges, ultra low temperature lab freezers, office chairs and many other products during factory visits.
Partly thanks to government spending on research and development, Korea has made a name for itself as a high-tech and manufacturing hub, but the most elegant product or service doesn’t always win out. That takes marketing, and Ms. Cisse sees opportunity for GCA’s members to augment their product mix by working with Korean firms.
“We’re just encouraging our members — if your looking only in your backyard, you’re missing literally a world of opportunity,” she said. “Expand your thinking and your knowledge about where you can do business and you’ll be able to tap into some markets where you might not have thought.”
Atlanta is firmly on the radar for many Korean firms thanks to billions of dollars in investments from the likes of Kia Motors, LG and Hanwha Q-Cells. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp traveled to the country in June in part to build on the momentum of a $1.7 billion announced investment by automotive battery maker SK Innovation, which broke ground a few months before on a site in Jackson County.
Korean Trade and Investment Promotion Agency, or KOTRA, set up a new office in Atlanta last year, supplementing the work of the Korean Consulate General in Atlanta, which is headed up by Consul General Young-jun Kim.
Learn more about the Government Contractors Association at www.govassociation.org