Inside Track, Economic Development, and Education

Inside Track: Jill of all trades

Sonja Johnson leverages work in multiple industries as executive director of GVSU’s Van Andel Global Trade Center.

December 6, 2019
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Sonja Johnson
Sonja Johnson was the first in her family to attend college, graduating from Minnesota State. Courtesy Grand Valley State University

Starting life in a small town of about 13,000 people, Sonja Johnson now helps businesses make connections all over the world. 

As executive director of Grand Valley State University’s Van Andel Global Trade Center, Johnson leads the consulting and training work meant to help area companies increase their international business and become more competitive in the global marketplace.

The Global Trade Center also is the grantee administrator of the Kent-Ottawa-Muskegon Foreign-Trade Zone to promote the federal zone benefits and usage for local companies.

The second of four children, Johnson is the only one who left their hometown of Fairmont, Minnesota. Her plans started in between harvesting soybeans and corn during summer vacations from school.

“My mind got to thinking there's a world out there,” Johnson said. 

The first in her family to attend college, she graduated from Minnesota State, about an hour from home.

“And then when I finished college, I did the crazy thing that my family never really understood,” Johnson said.

 

SONJA JOHNSON
Organization:
Van Andel Global Trade Center
Position: Executive director
Birthplace: Fairmont, Minnesota
Residence: Cascade
Family: Husband, Andrew; daughter, Hannah; son, Evan; Spanish exchange student, Lucia
Business/Community Involvement: Michigan World Trade Week chair
Biggest Career Break: Becoming a licensed customs broker

 

Without a job or much of a plan, she headed to Seattle simply because that’s where she wanted to be. A college friend was moving there, and she decided to join and then go from there. 

“That was the first airplane ride I ever took,” she said.

She got a job in medical sales. The job brought her outside the hospital surgery room as her company’s products were being used on a per-rental basis. When she got a little nauseous during the first visit, she realized the field probably wasn’t for her.

“It was great money, but I hated it,” she said.

But the sales field forced then-shy Johnson out of her shell, she said.

She started working for an international third-party logistics company and moved to its branch in Portland, where she moved up through the chain of hierarchy fairly quickly.

She started at the company’s international imports department, and she realized the people moving up in the company had a customs broker license. The exam has a pass rate of about 15%, and Johnson passed it the first time she took it.

“People were astonished that I was able to pass that exam the first time, including myself,” she said. “It really escalated my career from there.”

She then worked her way up to import manager, building relationships with global companies, such as Columbia, Nike and Adidas.

Consistent long hours for that company contributed to a feeling of burnout, she said. A couple of times, she had to take last-minute flights to hand-deliver a specialty pair of shoes to an athlete for a big event.

Stemming from the relationships she built at the third-party logistics company, some of her customers started offering her jobs. Johnson said she had offers from a sportswear company, an apparel company and a fiber optics company.

“I always enjoyed giving good service because I liked receiving good service,” Johnson said. “I think that's why I was approached by a lot of my clients to come work for them.”

The fiber optics company had purchased an office in the U.K. and needed someone to set up international operations. Compared to large global brands that also offered her positions, she decided she would learn a lot more in the leadership position for the fiber optics company.

“When I left the 3PL and went to the private sector, I really felt that my contributions were impacting the business at a much different rate,” she said. “That was a unique opportunity, to have those kinds of discussions and be exposed to a lot more than I probably would have working for a much larger multinational company.”

Rather than being part of a department and focusing on a specialty, being in the C-suite level showed her what it takes to make big decisions and do business at a high level.

“Even though I probably could have made more money going into a different sector, I don't regret it for a minute because I just felt that I grew from that experience.”

She moved to West Michigan for a job and shortly after was recruited to work in the global trade compliance department at Haworth, but it wasn’t the best time for office furniture, she said.

Finally, an associate director position became available for the Van Andel Global Trade Center, and she was hired for the role in 2004. The originating executive director moved away, and after two international searches that lasted almost two years, Johnson was promoted to the role in 2008.

“It's a really unique place to pull together a lot of what I've learned along the way from a lot of different industries I've been in,” Johnson said. 

Over the past four years, foreign-trade zone clients have exported $67.7 million in goods and supported 253 jobs. Clients work with 195 countries.

The Global Trade Center is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

Over the past 20 years, the center has trained nearly 9,700 businesses across Michigan; worked with more than 27,300 business professionals through consulting and on-site training; and engaged with more than 2,400 GVSU students, faculty and staff through its services.

Earlier this year, the center won the president’s "E" Award from the U.S. Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration for its work. 

Global Trade Center is in the process of hiring its 51st student. The center employs several students each year to work on client projects, such as analyzing data and developing advertising.

Over the past 20 years, the center’s student employees have worked on 425 global business projects.

“It's a great learning opportunity for students, which is a piece I really enjoy — seeing the students that are learning in the classroom and actually get to apply what they're learning to an actual business,” Johnson said.

This year has been particularly tough at the Global Trade Center because of additional tariffs, Johnson said. The center is working to help some businesses keep their heads above water and is setting processes to deal with the unknown changes. 

A lot of businesses here have had to pass on additional costs to customers or have had to absorb some costs, she said. One of Johnson’s biggest concerns is that companies will move operations out of the country for financial reasons.

Because of the federal election cycle, Johnson is telling clients it may be a year or more before there’s more certainty regarding trade agreements and tariffs.

“I never would have guessed that the additional tariffs situation would have gone on this long and this deep. I just had not ever seen that before,” Johnson said. “It's really interesting talking through what's going on, keeping the politics out of it, just looking at how this is impacting business.”

With the changing circumstances, she said the center is working to be flexible and innovative with its services. That will continue into the future along with a changing business climate. Serving each individual company starts with a conversation, she said. 

“I think the amount of innovation and change that’s going on just because of technology is providing a lot of opportunities to evolve,” she said.

One way she wants to lead the Global Trade Center into the future is by continuing to push collaboration in the community.

“As we work more collaboratively, we're not only stronger as a trade center, but Michigan businesses are,” she said.

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