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Inside Track: Mark Bleckley is a detail-oriented kind of guy
Global trade and compliance with U.S. Customs involves good recordkeeping and paperwork that must be done right.
Behind every successful exporting/importing company, there’s a lot of intricate paperwork to make it happen. And behind every pile of paperwork, there’s a knowledgeable person like Mark Bleckley, making sure it’s done right.
Bleckley, a licensed customs broker, has more than 20 years of experience working for multinational companies, including Amway and Haworth, as an international trade administrator and compliance specialist.
Today, he is the associate director of Van Andel Global Trade Center at Grand Valley State University and the 2013 president of West Michigan World Trade Association.
Bleckley is one of the key resources at VAGTC for small and mid-sized businesses in West Michigan that are trying to initiate or expand their exports to other countries.
“A lot of these companies are starting to have some success in international trade,” said Bleckley.
The West Michigan World Trade Association should not be confused with VAGTC. It is not part of GVSU; it is a 53-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to maintaining West Michigan's competitive edge in global trade. The association brings together area executives to share their expertise and refine their skills in international trade.
Since 2002, WMWTA has been a partner with Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
Bleckley’s interest in international trade began when he was studying business administration at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa. Two of his summers were spent on mission work in the Philippines, but he also spent about 10 days in China and “a lot of time in Hong Kong, also.”
Hong Kong, in particular, he said, is a “phenomenal place” where a lot of international trade takes place. It is a major focal point in the global trade of precious and semi-precious gems, an industry that sparked Bleckley’s interest. He soon realized the gem trade is difficult to break into, but he did come away determined to work in international trade.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Bleckley worked for two customs brokers in Grand Rapids, one called UTS and the other John V. Carr, a national firm based in Detroit.
Those jobs were the perfect training ground in international trade, he said, involving both paperwork preparation and logistics management and shipment tracking. During that period, Bleckley qualified for his broker’s license from the Treasury department.
“After two years in the trenches doing “the grunt work,” Bleckley was ready for a better job. By that point, a former boss at one of his first jobs who had served as a mentor to him had joined the Amway corporation and had become a manager in the export department. He was instrumental in helping Bleckley land a job at Amway.
Bleckley spent eight years there as a customs administrator. In early 2001, he took a job at Haworth as an international trade specialist. In 2003, he decided to take the plunge and start a business of his own as a painting contractor, involved in home remodeling and new home construction. It lasted for five years, and at one point, Bleckley’s small business had five employees.
“It was a very lucrative business until the housing market crashed,” he said.
Managing his own business was an “invaluable” experience, he said, but the Recession forced Bleckley to return to his original career path.
Bleckley said that while he was at Haworth, he had helped Sonja Johnson land a job there. Now she is the executive director of Van Andel Global Trade Center. With her assistance, Bleckley landed a job at VAGTC in 2008 as associate director.
VAGTC is not an academic part of GVSU but rather a professional service for mainly small and mid-size businesses in West Michigan, its goal being to strengthen the area economy through increased global trade. The staff provides consulting and training services and resource development, and also sponsors trade missions overseas for West Michigan business owners and managers.
Bleckley, in fact, spent a week in Brazil in May as a member of a Michigan trade mission that included the lieutenant governor and representatives from a number of West Michigan companies.
As it says on the VAGTC website: “We provide world-class international business solutions at affordable rates.”
The global consulting services are designed to assist a company that does not have enough resources to hire private consultants, yet needs to begin proactively engaging international markets. Once a company has received enough help to reach the point where its global business is expanding and it has internal trained staff, that company, in effect, “graduates” from VAGTC.
Compliance with U.S. Customs requirements and requirements by the country where the goods are going to or coming from “is very detailed oriented. I tend to be very detail oriented,” said Bleckley.
The reality at many small companies is that they just aren’t very good at paperwork. That’s because many of them are often short staffed.
“You don’t have to be a multi-million dollar company to be involved in international trade,” he noted. He is aware of exporters here with as few as 10 employees.
The North American Free Trade Agreement enacted by the U.S., Canada and Mexico in 1994 requires a lot of recordkeeping to qualify goods for legal movement across the borders, said Bleckley. A company’s good records and strict compliance can lead to “preferential tariff treatment.”
However, Bleckley said he is familiar with many West Michigan companies “that have not put together sound compliance programs for NAFTA.” A U.S. company that fails to follow the import/export rules required by Canada, for example, may have to pay retroactive duties going back as much as five years, on top of fines and penalties.
“Companies struggle with putting down on paper this compliance procedure,” he said, because failing to comply is “an abstract risk” and the action it requires is “a non-value-added function.”
“I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a manager or owner say, ‘Why do I have to spend time on compliance? We’ve never had a problem with this before,’” he said.
Bleckley refers to “the big three” of compliance: proper value of the goods being exported from the U.S.; proper classification of the product, meaning, what exactly is it and what category it belongs in; and properly declaring the country of origin. That can get sticky when parts that go into a finished product are first imported into the U.S. and then the finished product is exported.
There was increased interest in exporting by West Michigan manufacturers when the Recession virtually stalled the auto industry, and many small companies desperately looked for ways to stay alive by diversifying into production not related to automobiles. The aerospace industry was one of the avenues many explored.
Exporting does not require a license — unless the goods fall into categories involving possible military use, or aerospace, or other technology the U.S. government does not want to end up in foreign countries. That is much more complicated, but VAGTC regularly offers training on ITAR: International Traffic In Arms Regulations.
Meanwhile, the list of free trade agreements involving the U.S. keeps growing, such as the KORUS agreement between the U.S. and Korea last year. Other such agreements have been made with Colombia and Panama.
Use of the benefits from free trade agreements “always comes back to more attention to compliance,” said Bleckley.