By Cindy Atoji Keene
With over 10 million frequent flyer miles, a passport stamped by over 70 countries, and fluency in five languages (English, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese), international business consultant Philip Guarino is avid intrepid traveler who sometimes isn’t sure what country he’s waking up in. But no matter what the time zone, he’s inevitably ready to launch into a discussion of how the weak domestic market is all the more reason that cities like Boston should put on their international thinking cap. “When it comes to connecting with world markets, Boston lacks economic punch, especially when compared to European or Asian counterparts,” said Guarino, founder of Elementi Consulting in Boston. This tepid level of internationalization could drag down the competitiveness of Massachusetts industry. Much of this global nearsightedness, Guarino believes, is due to a lack of strategic thinking. “Too many companies think of the international market as an afterthought,” said Guarino, who said that often high-tech companies, Internet-based services, and social media purveyors think that technology will somehow naturally get adopted everywhere without a master plan. “But this couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Guarino’s international business consultancy is an outgrowth of both professional and personal ties overseas, beginning when he helped a large Bay State technology company start up a distribution network in Brazil. “I came with a translator to visit a factory and my supervisor said, ‘Guess what, you need to learn to speak Portuguese really fast.’ ” He later worked as an importer of Italian kitchen designs to the Boston market, a flashback to his past as the son of an Argentine-Italian father. Guarino spent time as a child in Argentine and Italy, and later studying international and business relations in both countries. “It was valuable background in helping to understand the cultural traditions and signals that might otherwise derail an international business deal,” said Guarino.
Q: What are you currently working on?
A: One project is helping a digital media company open their European office in Paris. This includes looking at financial and taxation issues, and developing partnerships with local businesses.
Q: What are some hot emerging markets?
A: I would be totally amiss not to mention China, India and Brazil. But there are also other markets for first-time exporters that a lot of companies don’t think about, such as Canada, where there is not a lot of debt and banks are in good condition. Mexico has also been remarkably stable throughout the whole financial crisis.
Q: Why is it important to understand cultural nuances?
A: Mexico is an interesting example. Our way of doing business is by phone and email, but business is very relationship-based in this country, so time needs to be spent building personal connections. Another challenge with Mexico is logistical; NAFTA has lowered regulatory barriers but it’s still complex in many respects, but doing business there is a lot easier than 15 years ago.
Q: How does a Boston-based business even begin thinking about expanding internationally?
A: I think it comes down to thinking about where opportunities lie. One misconception is that companies think they need an actual product that they can physically ship abroad, but that’s not the case. Universities, for example, are highly internationalized now, and even a dentist or a doctor can market their services overseas. Some companies are even launching their products first in foreign markets then coming back, such as mobile companies who choose London as a test market, building a solid client base then going to investors. It’s almost becoming a necessity for even a small business to look abroad.
Q: What’s your biggest travel horror story?
A: Getting stuck in a dirt storm in Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, which has to be the ugliest city in the world. It’s a pretty wretched place. I got out of a taxi and in a matter of 10 seconds, was completely covered in soot. It was quite an adventure.