GRAND RAPIDS — He may not be an international man of mystery, but John Armonda can certainly take the mystery out of international trade.
Some might even say he’s Grand Rapids’ own “Mr. NAFTA.”
As associate director of the Van Andel Global Trade Center (VAGTC), Armonda has a distinct point of view.
“International business was the future, it is the future and it’s going to be the future. The better we learn to embrace it, the better off we’re going to be.”
The two-and-one-half-year-old VAGTC, established by Grand Valley State University, is a business-economic development organization providing companies with customized logistical and strategic services to help them engage global markets.
Armonda fields a lot of questions and does a lot of piecemeal assistance via phone and e-mail. About 60 percent of the inquiries he handles are either document related or NAFTA related. The remainder are “all over the place.”
He’s also involved in developing and presenting executive seminars, workshops and conferences to educate managers on relevant international business issues and global integration activities.
“We try to bring things down to an understandable level. It’s a process of cleaning up some of the ignorance and fallacies that are out there about international business,” Armonda explained.
“We try to stay ahead of the curve as far as what is coming in the future, things we know are going to be important that maybe companies are overlooking. We want to make sure we bring those issues out in front.”
Another focus is consulting with Michigan companies on their business plans and strategies. The VAGTC also has put together programs in California, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Indiana and Iowa, he noted.
Armonda, whose mother and father were Mexican and Italian, respectively, was born in Mexico City and moved with his family to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1978 when he was 8 years old. His father was a building contractor with real estate interests in Florida.
Growing up, he spent the school year in the U.S. and summers in Mexico, thus maintaining his native culture and Spanish language skills.
As a child, Armonda dreamed of being the first Mexican astronaut in space, but all his family members were either doctors or engineers and his aspirations eventually turned to engineering.
After nearly three and a half years of pursuing an engineering degree at the University of Alabama, he decided engineering wasn’t for him.
“I was really tossed into a situation of just picking something out of the blue just to get a degree,” he recalled.
He ended up with an Economics degree with a business management minor. As part of the degree, he did a one-credit internship at the Alabama International Trade Center and in the 10 hours he spent there, his interest in international business “exploded.”
“It was one of those things where, as soon as I felt it, I knew it was what I was supposed to do,” he said.
Armonda went to work for Alabama ITC as an international market research associate in 1992 at a time when the grass roots push for passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was getting underway.
On behalf of the state of Alabama, he worked to educate the business community about NAFTA, a trade agreement among the governments of Canada, Mexico and the U.S.
“At my age, and being Mexican, being involved in something that was going down in the history books was, to me, very important,” he added. “I got lucky, basically.”
After two years at Alabama ITC, Armonda hired on as Latin American inside sales representative at Kappler North America, a leading chemical protective garment manufacturer.
He served as a liaison between Kappler and Latin American sales representatives, distributors and end users in both sales and product support activities. From there, he worked his way up to product manager and, in 1996, to import/export manager and involvement in the company’s compliance aspects in Canada, Mexico, Europe and Southeast Asia.
It was going to work for the private sector that really prepared him for the kind of work he’s doing today, he said. He learned the way most people in private industry learn — “They’re given a responsibility and they go out and get it done,” he said.
In the fall of 1997 he moved northward and into the position of director of the state of Illinois’ NAFTA Opportunity Center at Bradley University in Peoria. The center counseled and trained business executives and company employees and promoted cross border activities with Canada and Mexico.
Looking back, he says, “I guess that the direction I was going with engineering, that kind of mindset, I’ve applied to the customs, compliance and document regulation side.”
He was attracted to the position at VAGTC because the opportunities were greater both personally and professionally. The VAGTC also takes a broader approach to international business in general, he added.
Armonda said the VAGTC has come a long way in its short existence, as evidenced by the level of executive training programs it offers, the speakers it brings in, the types of companies it works with and the projects it undertakes on their behalf.
The projects the VAGTC is getting into, Armonda believes, are well beyond the organization’s original expectations. Projects can range from a very small company that’s just starting to source a product from abroad to a company that’s looking to expand manufacturing operations in Europe due to demand.
“I was kind of shocked earlier this year to hear a lot of small to medium-sized companies talking about foreign expansion. I thought that was pretty assertive,” he said.
“These are very good companies that will be strong and will maintain because they’re still investing in their outside market, as opposed to some of them that have completely pulled in the reins and won’t touch the outside market.”
Companies are really driven by individuals and if those individuals want to enter international markets, it doesn’t matter whether the company is large or small, he said. Some very small companies thrive in international markets just because they have the drive and the know-how to get there.
Depending on the company’s strategy, if a company wants to penetrate Latin America in general, Mexico is a great way to dive into the shallow portion of the pool. In South America the pool is a little deeper and further away and the tendency is to lose some control, he said.
“Mexico gives a company enough difference in culture, language and government standards to give you a really good idea of what it’s going to take to go further south,” Armonda said. “I think Canada is easier as a first country to start to do business with, but the whole NAFTA agreement has helped for either one of those countries to be the first springboard for any kind of international focus.”
He visits Mexico often, both on business and for pleasure. All his relatives live in Mexico, so that’s a continual draw for him.
On behalf of a VAGTC client, he may be summoned to Mexico to help with communication, or to provide on-site consulting or to assess a situation. The fact that he’s fluent in both written and spoken Spanish helps.
“This job takes care of me. I like what I do,” Armonda remarked. “I live the international life.”