Automation Alley's Noel Nevshehir on the value of travel and trade
BY JOYCE WISWELL
Noel Nevshehir is 80 percent toward fulfilling his life’s ambition.
“I have finally reached 80 countries, and my goal is to reach 100 countries before I die,” says the director of Automation Alley’s International Business Services.
It helps to have the perfect job; Nevshehir leads three trade missions each year to destinations around the globe — to locales as far-flung as Chile, Dubai, Israel, Germany and Indonesia. Mexico is visited annually.
The missions include one or more representatives from 10 to 12 companies interested in exporting their product, service or technology. Participants attend business receptions, meet with government officials and local business leaders, and have matchmaker meetings that place them in front of potential buyers and end users.
Nevshehir and his staff work with local embassies and consulates that participate in the Gold Key Service, an export.gov program of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration. The typical trip lasts about a week and costs an average of $6,000 for a company to participate,
and about $3,500 for an additional employee. That price includes airfare and accommodations.
To date, Automation Alley has taken 220 companies on 30 trade missions, and says they, in addition to other export activities, have resulted in nearly $740 million in export sales for local companies. Nevshehir has led 25 of the missions since joining the non-profit in 2006, and each necessitates at least one prior planning trip.
“I tell people that I retired when I joined Automation Alley because my job is more fun than work. It provides me the opportunity to do what I love most, which is to travel the world and meet people — not just professionally, but also to learn about them personally,” he says. “I have friends and family who make two, three times what I make but are absolutely miserable.”
Destinations are chosen based on the feedback of Automation Alley members. “We are member-driven so we survey and ask them what countries are of interest,” Nevshehir says. “I was hoping Bora Bora would come up on that list.”
Only once has he called off a mission after scoping out the destination.
“We were exploring a trade mission to Russia seven or eight years ago. This was the only time where I came back and said, ‘we are not going.’ When I landed at JFK I just wanted to take a shower to wash off the crime and corruption,” says Nevshehir, 52. “The corruption is endemic all the way down to the poorest of the poor.”
Not only was he personally offended by the corruption, Nevshehir was wary of leading Automation Alley clients down that path. “If I took these companies on a trade mission they would be compromised by Russian agents,” he says. “It is illegal to pay bribes.”
This wasn’t his first experience with Russia, with which he’s always had a fascination. In 1984, Nevshehir spent six months studying at St. Petersburg (Leningrad) State University while an undergrad at the University of Michigan, where he double-majored in economics and Russian studies.
“Wherever we went we were followed,” he recalls. “It became a game with two or three KGB agents following you at a crawl in their little cars. They thought we were all spies.”
He led missions to China but is cautious about companies setting up shop there.
“My big concern with China is that it is just assumed they are going to poach your intellectual property. A lot of American companies are really naive in thinking, ‘I have this airtight patent.’ But it’s entirely different to enforce the patent,” Nevshehir says. “Everyone says they will help you protect it, but they steal your technology anyway. It’s a much cheaper route for them than spending billions and billions. And the cases are adjudicated by Chinese courts.”
It’s a lesson he learned the hard way 15 years ago, when — as the manager of international trade for the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Department of Economic Development — he helped a Michigan company open a plant near Shanghai.
“Within eight months to a year [the government] opened ‘People’s Plant 667’ down the road and copied the same metal stampings,” he says ruefully. “They not only drove the company out of China, but out of business as well.”
He finds the market in Cuba, which Automation Alley visited last November, “really unsophisticated” but promising. He was struck by how open Cubans were in talking politics, especially compared to the time he first visited in 1993.
“The potential to do business there is incredible, but nothing will happen until Raul Castro steps down in 2018,” Nevshehir says. “And despite the fact that we restored a diplomatic relationship, the trade embargo still exists, and it is unlikely to be removed by the Trump Administration.”
Patrick Curry, president of Fullerton Tool in Saginaw, a family-owned manufacturer of solid carbide cutting tools, participated in a March mission to Australia. There he met numerous prospective customers and has already landed some test orders.
“There is no way I could have done that myself. It is hard enough getting past the lobby, especially with aerospace accounts,” Curry says. “I can’t say enough good things about the team at Automation Alley. They are very aggressive about getting you good opportunities.”
Before each mission, Nevshehir brings in a cultural expert for an orientation session so attendees don’t act like 'Ugly Americans.' “You are a guest and you have to act accordingly,” he stresses. “We have a vetting process and if there is someone who I feel will not project a good image, I will not take them.”
While traveling, Nevshehir loves asking locals what they think of America and how our country could do better. “The jury is still out” on President Donald Trump, he says. Many of the Australians he recently met approve of Trump’s tough talk about China. On the other hand, “the reaction is not good” in Mexico.
Wherever he goes, Nevshehir relishes candid exchanges.
“I am very outspoken but I would rather talk to people that I disagree with than those I agree with. Otherwise you get into confirmation bias,” he says. “I disarm them by opening the door to letting them lead the discussion, rather than an attitude of, ‘USA USA, we’re great and you’re not.’
“I am probably this country’s biggest critic,” he adds, “but it’s still hands-down the greatest in the world. But we could be so much better if we were running on all 12 cylinders.”
On Trade Deals
“It was a huge mistake for us to withdraw from the TPP. There are military and national security implications involved, and it was a way to check China’s saber rattling. I would hate to see President Trump renegotiate the terms of NAFTA. It’s going to open a can of worms.”
On Our Neighbors
“I wake up every morning and thank God we have neighbors like Canada and Mexico rather than China and Russia. We have taken Mexico for granted and all I can hope for is that Trump moderates his view. Mexico contributes a lot to the economic success of the United States. It’s a great partnership.”
On What He’s Learned
“Everybody, no matter where you go around the world, wants what you want — to be able to support their family and live their life in peace. On the other hand, you recognize there are some laws and ideologies that probably won’t be solved in our lifetime. The irony is that wherever I travel, I am always very well received — especially in the Middle East. The Arab people are the warmest and friendliest you would ever want to meet. Juxtapose that with all the violence taking place in the name of the religion they subscribe to.”
On the Benefits of Travel
“The best education I ever got was having opportunity to travel the world. It’s made me a better person, I hope, and much more compassionate and empathetic. At the same time, it can harden you as well. You really have to go to see for yourself. What you see on TV is filtered. It’s nice just to get it raw and make your own judgement.”