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Businesses increasingly abroad-minded

Published: Thursday, June 28, 2012 4:50 p.m. CDT
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(H. Rick Bamman ())
H. Rick Bamman – hbamman@shawmedia.com “I looked at it as an adventure,” said Rick Pizarek, vice president and general manager of Affinia Global Chassis Group, regarding his posting to China. “Without a religion over there, I officiated at two weddings. One I read in Chinese.”
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Affinia representative Rick Pizarek of Crystal Lake and other officials attend a groundbreaking in April 2010 for a 300,000-square-foot Longkou Wix Machinery Co. plant in Longkou City, Shandong Province, China. The filter plant eventually will employ 500 to 600 people.
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Tibet was among businessman Rick Pizarek’s (left) stops while based in China for Affinia Global Chassis. “I’ve only worked for two companies in my life, but I’ve had many, many different jobs,” Pizarek said. “I was always looking for a way to round out my career opportunities. I wanted to be that general manager, and now I am.”

More Americans than ever are living and working outside of the country.

A spokeswoman from the U.S. State Department estimated that about 6.4 million Americans either are working or studying overseas, part of a long-term trend. The Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., put that figure at about 3.8 million in 1999.

“That is a substantial increase over a 12-year period,” said Madeleine Sumption, policy analyst with the institute. “Another little piece of data is the increase in the number of people born to U.S. parents overseas has increased by a third since 2000.”

Does that mean those sons and daughters will be more likely to go back and work in the countries of their birth? Probably not, Sumption said. But it does add credence to the belief that the world has become a much smaller place. She said the number of Americans living in the United Kingdom, alone, has jumped 40 percent since 2004.

New research by global recruiters, the Hydrogen Group, and the international business school ESCP Europe, found that more than one-third found jobs through international recruiters, and they need not be young. Not only are more than 45 percent of those working abroad are 40 or older, they are in no hurry to get home. More than 80 percent of those who moved to the UK remained after five years.

“We’re not seeing people going abroad to do a quick two-year assignment. More and more people are spending their entire careers working overseas,” said ESCP Europe visiting professor Raymond Madden. The study found that international experience increasingly is a prerequisite for senior professionals.

“We’ve grown much closer in the last 10 to 20 years,” Sumption said. “There has been a dramatic increase in business-related migrations. Globalization and economic integration are increasing those numbers to historic highs. ... The Chinese economy has grown more than 40 percent since the economic crisis started in the U.S. in 2007. Brazil has a growing middle class of consumers. There are a lot of opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurs.”

Rick Pizarek, vice president and general manager of the Affinia Global Chassis Group, moved to Shanghi, China, in March 2007. For the Crystal Lake resident it was an opportunity of a lifetime and a positive influence on his career. But he had no idea going in that his six-month assignment would in fact last 3½ years. And despite having gone to China previously on behalf of the company, he was ill-prepared for the huge cultural and language challenges with just thee weeks’ notice.

“We were doing more and more business there and we needed somebody from the company to be there,” Pizarek said. “But there was no immersion. Our company typically doesn’t have people on foreign assignments. That’s not something we do. Even today, we have one American there now. We have one expatriot in the whole company.”

And even that, took some doing.

“The retirement age for Chinese was 55 for females and 60 for males. The guy that replaced me is now 71 years old. We had a hard time getting a work permit.”

Pizarek, then 51, was married with a family. He had his wife’s career to consider, as well as family obligations to their aging parents. But he was able to came home five times a year and his family visited several times. After all, even the “small” towns in China have several hundred thousand people.

“If not for the signs and everybody having black hair, you’d think you were in London, Tokyo or New York,” Pizarek said of Shanghi. “Even in the smaller towns there are all these businessmen out there. You certainly don’t get the feeling that China is a communist country. Capitalism is alive and well in China.”

As then-vice president and general manager for Asia operations for Affinia’s Global Brake & Chassis Group, Pizarek was charged with securing the necessary government approvals to set up a joint venture with a Chinese partner, finding new suppliers, building three plants and lead ing the company’s under-vehicle business activities throughout Asia.

Affinia Global Brake & Chassis Group is a division of Michigan-based Afffinia Group Inc., an automotive aftermarket producer of Wix filters and Raybestos brand brakes and chassis. It has plants in North and South America, Europe, Asia and India. Global Brake & Chassis – USA is headquartered at 4400 Prime Parkway in McHenry. The Affinia Shanghi Trading Co. sells the Raybestos and Wix brands throughout China, as well as Southeast Asia and India.

Pizarek seldom was in the office more than five days a month. Fortunately, all of Affinia’s Chinese employees were required to speak English, as a common currency for doing business internationally. But cultural differences – particularly in more rural areas – was another matter.

“I ate some of the craziest stuff: turtle, live shrimp – that’s live shrimp – snake, scorpions, cocoons,” Pizarek said. “I’ll have been back two years in August, and in March I went back there and ate honey bees. I always took the view of trying to fit in. But not everybody in the automotive aftermarket who goes to places like China and India is like that. They will go over there with half of their suitcase full of granola bars. I was just the opposite. I never asked what it was until after I ate it.”

Pizarek stressed the need for local cooperation when doing business in any foreign country. Joining forces with an existing Chinese businessman (Shanghi Trading Co. is 15 percent Chinese owned) enabled it to build a plant in 10 months. About 3,000 of Affinia’s 10,000 employees now work in China.

“The guy across the street, who had a building already up when we started, still wasn’t open because he couldnt’ get electricity,” Pizarek said. “It’s all about connections.”

That is true internationally, as well. Those who fail to look beyond their borders, do so at their peril.

“The disadvantage for American business is our market is so large many companies don’t think about branching out,” Pizarek said. “But would German be the powerhouse today if sold only in Germany? Of course not. The market in their home countries are not large enough to make for a large company. ... You have to think globally to grow your business.”

Failing to grow will cost you market share, Pizarek said.

“If China if you said your sales were up 2 to 4 percent, they’d say ‘That’s too bad.’ They are used to grow at 20 [percent], 30 [percent] and 40 percent. To them 2 percent or 3 percent growth is not going to get you where you need to be.”

Pizarek urged others contemplating work overseas to be “adventuresome” and “open to ideas.” Respect your hosts’ culture. Build relationships. And, above all, remain flexible. What looks to be totally unviable business partner one moment can transform itself into a model of efficiency in just a couple years.

“It was a fun job. It is not quite the wild frontier thatit was 20 years ago but it’s still the land of opportunity,” he said. “If you can’t get a job close to home in your field, you go to foreign countries to get hired. Some never come back.”

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