In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Denise Thomas, the Chief Executive Officer and 14-year veteran of the World Trade Center Arkansas. Listen as Denise shares the details of her work at the World Trade Center Arkansas, including her passion for growing and developing local businesses.
0:00:03.3 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to, BeEpic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today. I have with me today Denise Thomas, Chief Executive Officer at the World Trade Center Arkansas. She's been with the World Trade Center for 14 years. Prior to that, she was at Walmart, which is a very global company. Denise, thank you so much for joining us today. I appreciate it.
0:00:42.9 Denise Thomas: Oh, thank you so much for having me, it's an honor to be here. And Dean Waller, I've looked forward to this conversation, so thank you again for inviting me to participate in this wonderful podcast.
0:00:54.2 Matt Waller: Why don't we start with the basics. What is the World Trade Center?
0:01:00.1 Denise Thomas: Well, the World Trade Center is a part of an association, from the World Trade Center Association. And within that Association, there are over 300 World Trade Centers in over a 100 different countries, we are a part of The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. And we have been a part of the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, from the very beginning, they are the license holder. And with our organization, we have a dotted line to the governor's office, that we support the AEDC and the Governor's office as it relates to bilateral trade and exchange. Our primary focus is to assist small to medium size companies expand their global footprint within their business, whether it be a product and or a service. We do that through several methods, we do it through trade missions, we do it through diplomacy, we do it through training and development, research opportunities and we really try to work with that small business to better understand their capacity in a global marketplace.
0:02:00.0 Matt Waller: Small businesses in the United States generate most of the wealth, new wealth and most of the new jobs, so what you're doing to help Arkansas companies expand their footprint globally is tremendous.
0:02:13.9 Denise Thomas: Yeah, it's exciting. It's a lot of fun. I enjoy what I do, it makes me happy.
0:02:18.4 Matt Waller: Let's dive into that just a little bit more. Let's take one example, trade missions, which I'm familiar with. Talk about how that works and maybe give an example.
0:02:29.2 Denise Thomas: A good example would be, we do inbound and outbound trade missions. So we have taken a delegations to 72 different places, and I'm saying it slowly, 'cause I wanna make sure that that number is about right, but that seems about correct, where we've been, 72 different countries, and we do that through diplomacy and facilitating relationships. So we work with the US Department of Commerce, the SBA, and we also work with the embassies and the consoles. So we assist a company with moving a thought idea or a product to that particular market, by developing the relationships with stakeholders in country, what that does is it makes our job a lot easier to facilitate that opportunity for that company.
0:03:16.3 Denise Thomas: So we work on behalf of the company that is approached us and or of an industry. So let's pick rice, for example, one of our largest exports. We support the rice industry by helping our companies that work with us expand their rice opportunities. We work a lot with the aerospace companies in assisting them to expand their aerospace footprint because most people don't even realize that Arkansas is a large aerospace exporter, so we do trade missions related to that. We also do these trade shows, and the trade shows are done in different parts of the world, and we set up booths, we work with that client to help them better understand what they need to be prepared for that trade show.
0:03:54.7 Denise Thomas: We help them mitigate the risk as a cultural nuance of the lack of cultural fluency, we make sure that they are equipped to deal with the culture and to better understand what opportunities are there and how a deal might fall apart. So we do a lot of, I say hand-holding, and we also do a great deal of helping people better understand the lay of the land of that particular market, that particular culture and potential pitfalls for them, for them moving forward.
0:04:20.7 Matt Waller: So you mentioned the aerospace industry is a huge industry in Arkansas. But most of the players are very small companies. I was really surprised to find that out. I don't know why Arkansas has become a place with so many small aerospace suppliers, but I can also see how for aerospace companies expanding their markets globally could be challenging from a... I would imagine some of them have technologies that are protected.
0:04:51.5 Denise Thomas: Very true, very true. So the way that we go about doing that is we really try to work with that client to understand what we can say and what we can't say. We work with them to do market research to identify partners that they potentially could work with, and in some cases, the clients that they may already have can assist them identifying new clients. We will work with them to help potentially, vet that client.
0:05:15.4 Denise Thomas: Because if it is a technology or a product that is a controlled product or maybe on the Homeland Security watch list or the potential partner could have a background that may be in question, we assist with those things as well to make sure that that company doesn't have an issue. So when it comes to a product that may be a potential risk for security for the United States, or security for that potential company, we do get involved and we do involve stakeholders within our government, whether the FBI, Homeland Security, the Customs and Border Patrol, whomever or whatever agency needs to be involved, we try to engage them upfront to make sure that we're not breaking a rule or we're staying within the guidelines.
0:05:57.3 Denise Thomas: So we know that they're certain countries we are not supposed to work with, but we don't always know right away that there may be a specific product and or commodity that we're not supposed to move or we have to move with specific limitations or within the letter of the law, and we try to help with finding those things out, we don't wanna find those out after we've already negotiated something, we wanna try to do it upfront if we can.
0:06:22.4 Matt Waller: When you take a delegation to another country, I know many times you have a wide variety of companies represented and sometimes even like government officials and so forth. I know with COVID, I would suppose that has slowed you down a little bit on that. Has it?
0:06:40.5 Denise Thomas: Yeah, it has significantly curbed our activity. So we're doing a lot of virtual trade missions, which are a lot harder to do, so we're actually working through developing a process to simplify that to make it a bit easier. And I'll speak to that a little bit. So we're doing two-minute videos that are done through PowerPoint, 241 words anywhere between 15 and 24 images that tells you the who, what, when, where, why, and how that company operates and what they're looking for in a business partner and what services they might provide or what they're potentially selling and what market they're looking for.
0:07:14.8 Denise Thomas: And what that does is it gives a potential buyer and or importer or company that may be looking for raw materials to help manufacture, identify that, "Yes, this is a good fit, we do wanna meet with this company." So we can send that out to other World Trade Centers. So the World Trade Centers reciprocate services, so we work together to provide services with each other, for each other, and to support each other's members. So we're looking at this as an opportunity for us to expand opportunities for the State of Arkansas and for Arkansas businesses to find new markets or emerging markets or improve their potential manufacturing process. So it's not always as simple as a direct export, there may be an import problem that we're trying to solve, that may be an import, that it's a new manufacturer and they are looking at ways to improve their manufacturing practices.
0:08:03.0 Denise Thomas: So we look at how can we help them do that? We look at logistics as opportunities or threats potentially with supply chain interruptions, but due to COVID, we try to solve all of these different problems, and it really is a mixed bag. I always say we're not the experts in everything, but we know who to call to get things done and to answer the questions for that client.
0:08:24.7 Matt Waller: You've taken delegations over the years to China, I remember. From China on the one hand, Cuba.
0:08:33.9 Denise Thomas: For me, the most recent delegation outbound was Italy. And that was literally retail service providers, in a travel agency. We took a travel agency, because most people don't realize that a person coming into the United States or specifically into Arkansas, that is counted as export dollars. So every time a person brings a delegation or a person comes in for vacation, that's export dollars. So the travel agency wanted to have a relationship with Italian travel agencies so that they could help improve their business. We had a supply chain logistics person, we had a company, two companies that do retail work with Walmart and other vendors that help them mitigate their risk with working with Walmart and making sure their product assortment is good and that their position within the retail supply chain is on point.
0:09:26.8 Denise Thomas: We also had import brokers working at this particular event. And what happens is we did business-to-business meetings, we did an overview of doing business in the United States, but specifically in Northwest Arkansas, not just with Walmart, but with retailers in general. We try to have an emphasis or a focus on Walmart because that's our home base, but we also try to help them understand that Walmart may not be their first, best spot, they may need to look at other retailers first so that they can gain... Better understand the market, better understand what it's gonna take to do business in the United States, and helps scale them for that.
0:10:03.8 Denise Thomas: So we work from that, but that service that they provide that service in and of itself is an export. So we work both ways, but in this case, it was a sweet spot because it was providing a service that people wanted and then those retailers or potential manufacturers of food products was mostly what we looked at and wine. When they wanna come and put their product here, we assisted them in doing that. Before COVID, we also did a inbound delegation from Belarus. And I know that recently the political climate in Belarus has changed, but the companies within that delegation still want to facilitate opportunities with us.
0:10:42.8 Denise Thomas: So we just started working with them again. That particular delegation was primarily looking at buying product from Arkansas that they wanted to sell in their retail facilities. So they looked at boats, which we have quite a few boat manufacturers, so we're able to get those people involved and they had great meetings. They did look at potential retail opportunities within Walmart and other retailers, none of them were Walmart ready, which was great. Because again, knowing that you're not ready and having a plan of action on how to prepare yourself and how to be ready for local retailers in other markets it all works as a win-win. So they were very satisfied, the people who participated from Arkansas were very satisfied, and then literally it was just three or four days later, COVID happened and we all shut down, so we're re-engaging with that.
0:11:35.4 Matt Waller: Great. Of course, I know there's been a number of times I've joined in groups from other countries that have come to the World Trade Center here, you all have had meetings. Most recently, we had some people from Panama.
0:11:50.5 Denise Thomas: Yes.
0:11:53.3 Matt Waller: And one of them is an alum of our college, and of course, I know him. But Panama is kind of an interesting one, because we have such a long history with Panama as a university. A long time ago, I guess it was right after World War II, Congress designated certain countries to be related to land grant universities. And the country that we were designated to be engaged with was Panama, so we've had research stations there for a long time, and one of the former... I'm sure you know, Presidents of Panama is an alum of the Walton College.
0:12:37.4 Denise Thomas: Yes.
0:12:38.7 Matt Waller: And he... Something kind of interesting about that, so he went to school here quite a long time ago, I don't know when he graduated, I wanna think it was the '70s, but I'm not certain about that. But he graduated and he eventually grew the largest retail chain in Central America, Super 99.
0:12:58.7 Denise Thomas: Yes.
0:12:58.8 Matt Waller: Which is kind of interesting if you think about it because when he graduated from school here, Walmart was actually pretty small, alternatively. But then of course, he eventually became the president of the country for a time, and the University of Arkansas has had MBA programs there, executive education programs and other things like that, 'cause we have so many... Even today on campus, we have a lot of Panamanian students, it's a connection you wouldn't expect, but the other thing I thought was kind of interesting about it is not only the retail connection, which who knows? You could say it was completely coincidental and maybe it is. But in addition to that, there's the huge logistics connection.
0:13:39.5 Denise Thomas: Yes.
0:13:41.5 Matt Waller: Because of the Panama Canal... People think of the Panama Canal and think, "Well, that's the logistics in Panama." But as we know, they have all kinds of third-party logistic services, trans-shipment points. And one other further thing that is interesting about this is that the Panama Canal railway was defunct for a long time and Kansas City Southern Railways restored it and owned it and ran it. I don't know if they still own it, I think they do, but I'm not certain about that. But the person that was in charge of getting it going again is an alum...
0:14:19.4 Denise Thomas: Oh, wow.
0:14:21.0 Matt Waller: Who worked at Kansas City Southern.
0:14:23.9 Denise Thomas: That's interesting.
0:14:23.9 Matt Waller: Isn't that interesting?
0:14:26.9 Denise Thomas: Yeah, that is really interesting.
0:14:27.4 Matt Waller: But one thing we didn't talk about... You had that delegation from Panama come up here to Arkansas, you were able to assemble a really powerful audience, you had senior people from... I know Walmart, JB Hunt, Tyson and other companies that were there. How difficult is it to get engagement from the companies around here in something like that?
0:14:55.7 Denise Thomas: Well, the Panama delegation is a little unfair, [chuckle] because Tito and Melvin Torres worked really hard on pulling that together. Melvin is the Latin American trade desk person. And honestly, I had very little to do with that particular event. But with Tito being an alumni, he has relationships with people, and you've been to Panama, several of the people that were in that room had been to Panama, and have worked with Tito through the years. So it's like when he calls, people respond. Generally speaking, when we do try to pull delegations together, if we have a clear understanding of what the stakeholders want to see and what they need to know, we can get them in the room.
0:15:39.7 Denise Thomas: It's a challenge sometimes when it's super, super busy around holiday time in particular, 'cause logistics companies, supply chain, everybody's hustling, so we try to steer people from doing anything from mid-October to really late January. We try to say, "Don't do something." And he picked the perfect time. I mean, it was just an ideal period of time, the conversation was very current, because he really focused on supply chain and how can we create opportunities to move goods more strategically? How can we create opportunities to be more thoughtful about it? And what can Panama resources do to help our suppliers move their goods more effectively and at a better cost? So the conversation was timely, so in this case, I would say it was super easy because those people were already engaged and you were speaking a language based on a need that was happening at that time. So being strategic about that and being thought provoking about that, I think made all the difference. And as you saw in that conversation, it was a rich conversation and very robust, and it was informative.
0:16:47.7 Denise Thomas: So from that perspective, that was, I would say a huge success and a wonderful opportunity for Panama as well as Arkansas.
0:16:56.0 Matt Waller: I totally agree. And the experience in the room was remarkable, we had people with 30 years of experience in trucking, 30 years of experience in poultry production distribution, retail. I looked around the room, I was really impressed. And of course, even before the meeting got started, I was joining several conversations and I thought, "Wow, this is... People would have no idea what kinds of innovative discussions are occurring in this kind of a setting."
0:17:33.5 Denise Thomas: The World Trade Center is really here to service, the State of Arkansas. Whether it's a small start-up business that has an idea that they think they may wanna export, but they're not sure. To a company that is a seasoned exporter and potentially even a multinational company that we may be able to work with in some capacity to help them find a better supplier, improve practices or sell more product, and or service. And we do it with a deep passion because the staff and the team here really love what they do, and we enjoy the process of moving our clients forward and seeing them succeed. And that's something that we've been able to do for 14 years and I've had the pleasure, the privilege and the honor to be here, not quite from day one, but really day three or four of the World Trade Center doors opening and to this point, and I would say that has just been a beautiful experience and I wouldn't change any aspect of it.
0:18:38.1 Matt Waller: Well, Denise, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate the work you're doing at the World Trade Center and how it's really having a positive impact on Arkansas.
0:18:50.1 Denise Thomas: Well, thank you so much for having me, I enjoyed the conversation. I look forward to hearing more from you and more from the podcast, and if anyone has any questions for me, please share my contact information. I'm more than happy to service or talk with anybody about just about anything. So if I know it, I'll share it, and if I've got it, you can have it.
0:19:11.1 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The BeEpic podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, you can find current and past episodes by searching BeEpic podcast, one word. That's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now BeEpic.