As a former American commercial diplomat in Beijing to facilitate US-China trade, Joshua Halpern presents a wealth of insights about e-commerce companies and the many factors they must consider to operate worldwide. But with the abundance of support companies that handle all of issues, the process has become far faster and easier. Josh also presents ways that companies find overseas venture partners when they have no previous experience or contacts, and how branding is critical. Even if companies’ images do not adapt well internationally, Josh shows how each country will still have a “tribe” of customers who will adopt them. While DeBeers has successfully equated its diamonds with the concept of Love in the West, Josh also illustrates how DeBeers succeeded in Japan where the “love” connotations are not the same, how the Investment in “ROI” is less costly abroad than companies may assume, and the tax reasons that are driving an exodus of Westerners from China.
Advice for U.S. companies selling abroad.
What the U.S. Commerce Department provides for U.S. exporters.
The shift in e-commerce strategy according to industry.
Building a brand internationally.
When your brand doesn’t work in other cultures.
Advice for companies entering or leaving China.
Mr. Halpern leads Getting to Global’s Grow Big Initiative, a public/private partnership to empower SMEs to sell more across multiple channels and geographies. The initiative is an official partner of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration and the Small Business Administration and is sponsored by cross-border service providers including Avalara, Digital River, Amazon, Fedex, Channel Engine, Dubai South, Alba Wheels Up and more. Alumni of these programs include Roland Sands, Lime Crime, REVOLVE, Paris Hilton Skincare, MVMT, Califia Farms & Stone Coat Countertops.
Josh also consults C-suite execs on global digital trade strategies in product verticals such as celebrity beauty, health, branded agriculture and outdoor lifestyle. His work includes building direct-to-consumer cross-border e-commerce strategies; optimizing supply chains to leverage shifts in trade policies and government regulations; and identifying and vetting distributors, licensees, and joint-venture partners in overseas markets.
Mr. Halpern is a former U.S. Commercial Service Officer representing the U.S. retail apparel, auto, marine and cosmetics industry in China where he worked closely with hundreds of brands including Estee Lauder, Tiffany & Co., Burton, Mattel, Airstream, Harley Davidson, Revolve, Bobby Brown and Rag & Bone. Following his role in China, the International Trade Administration asked Mr. Halpern to launch the eCommerce Innovation Lab for the U.S. Department of Commerce to help U.S. consumer brands sell directly to consumers through ecommerce sales channels.
Mr. Halpern holds a B.F.A. from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, an MBA from INSEAD and an EMBA from Tsinghua University. He speaks Spanish and Chinese.
In his spare time, Josh is known for his alter-ego, The VanBassador, where he travels the country interviewing founders on how they are staying local and going global! www.youtube.com/vanbassador
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[email return to Philip@Auerbach-Intl.com]
Hello everyone. Since today’s guest lived extensively in China, I thought it would be appropriate to do a blooper from China, which is a sign that had a picture of a camera. And it said very simply, in English, The optimum place for shooting. Not exactly the meaning of the word correctly, and what happens again when words get misused. You then need professional translation services to make sure that the context is totally correct is culturally appropriate.
So, with that, today’s guest is Joshua Halpern. Josh is a former 10-year US Commercial Services officer, effectively a commercial diplomat serving at the US Embassy in China where he led the retail portfolio including the categories of franchises, beauty, and luxury goods, as well as the marine and auto industry portfolios, including greenport technology and advanced logistics solutions. Josh also led trade missions, bringing Chinese port leaders to the US to adopt US greenport standards and to procure US technology and hardware.
In addition to lobbying the Chinese government to reduce market entry barriers, he has worked for brands ranging from REVOLVE, Lime Crime, Steinway Pianos, Mrs. Fields Cookies, Bagley Mishka, Rag and Bone, Bobbie Brown, Estee Lauder and Subway, many of which are household names for most of us.
Since 2018, he has won Getting To Global, building public/private partnerships between federal and state trade agencies, local chambers, and Fortune 500 companies to support US merchants and brands selling online and overseas. Partner companies include Google, Facebook, Amazon, FedEx, Payoneer, Avalara, and Digital River.
Josh has a strategic partnership agreement with the Small Business Administration and the International Trade Administration to run export training programs for small businesses and minority and women-owned businesses. He holds a BFA from Tisch and an MBA from INSEAD, and Tsinghua University and speaks fluent Spanish and Mandarin.
Welcome, Josh. Delighted that you’re with us.
Thank you, Philip. It’s a pleasure to be here.
So, to begin, what advice would you give to U.S. companies that are selling abroad for the first time?
Great question. I think one of the key things I would say is there are all of the solutions you need to have your products available and shippable and to get paid for them. You can do it today in a way that you never could before, and when you’re analyzing your return on investment of allocating resources to go global, you have to understand that that investment, the “I” in that ROI, Is a lot less than you might think. The Number One challenge is going to be building your brand, and that’s something that we could talk about separately, but that’s what I would say. The big takeaway is you can say. Yes, to be global, but you just have to isolate your focus on the marketing side.
And a lot of the marketing you’ve done involves e-commerce. So, I know that major preparation issues for e-commerce are effectively logistical, sourcing, warehousing and shipping, distribution, and so forth. And these are all before preparing your websites and before preparing the actual launch itself. And branding is a big part of that. Is my assumption correct? Are there other issues that I haven’t mentioned?
Obviously, you covered the main ones. There are a couple that I would add to it that overlap with the stuff that you said, but just to call them out, you’ve got compliance issues generally. Are you complying with the regulatory bodies there? If you’re selling nutritional or organic products or skin care, etcetera, there’s definitely compliance.
Packaging or you have to adjust your packaging to be a compliance issue. Your FX rates just pay attention to a little bit more. Are you going to get the best FX rates once you get to high enough volumes it can make a real difference
I’m sorry. You’re saying what rates please, FX? Foreign Exchange?
FX so FX rates kind of, yeah, foreign exchange rates.
You know obviously things that can have an impact as you said, these aren’t the critical first steps, but they’re important to keep in mind duty drawbacks. So how are you going to deal with returns?
So, in the market, customer service and after-sales service is often a major concern, and then, of course, fraud mitigation issues as well. What I’ll highlight though is that as you talked about. What’s wonderful about the world, especially a free market, is the harder things are to accomplish or to deal with, the more solutions have come out to address those, because those are the big pain points. And today, more than ever, you have companies that will do that right off the bat.
Could you propose solutions to some of these issues that you’ve mentioned, for example?
Yeah, I can mention Avalara for example is a right-off-the-bat plug-in to deal with duties and taxes and they plug into you if you’re selling large volumes and if you want to mitigate those issues, you’ve got a merchant of record model. Again, Digital River or any number of these merchant record models will take a lot of that off the plate and they’ll essentially act as the merchant of record. They’ll take your products, and they’ll turn around and sell them overseas. But for you, it’s essentially a domestic sale. There are a bunch of companies like this.
There are a lot of ways to deal with those issues, but they’ll basically be, you know, the global checkout so you can make sure you’re charging the right duties and taxes. Those are checkout counters that are embedded in your website. If you are at this point in time and if you do not have a global-enabled website in terms of the currency and your checkout, you can use any number of tools. Happy to say that. I’ve already said too, probably too many brand names to be saying in a podcast, but I do want you to know that there are solutions out there.
And I know that since you’ve been with the Commerce Department, I’m sure the Commerce Department knows a lot of these tools.
Well, the challenge with that is that as a federal agency, they don’t necessarily recommend private sector pools, but we have them as well. I mean, you have them on a platform called export-connect.org which has all these services. We also have a platform to grow big initiatives where we actually train on all of these aspects at growbig.org/programs. It’s all free, but if you go to growbig.org/programs you can see it. All these different solutions and what they deal with and what they address .
That’s an excellent resource for people. Thank you. Perhaps similarly, you can tell us what the Commerce Department normally would provide to U.S. exporters, and what kind of support they provide.
Sure. And again, I haven’t worked in the Commerce Department for five years. We have a partnership with them, but they are probably best known for something called the Gold Key service. If you want to sell overseas, they have offices in 70 of the major markets around the world. They’ve got an officer who, like I was overseas, local staff, but the real people who know what’s going on the ground are the local staff, and they’ll be assigned per vertical, so you’ll have somebody in retail, somebody in the marine industry, finance, etcetera.
You talk to them, and you say, hey, I’d like to find distributors or joint venture partners or licensees who will use their network and their cloud and try to get you to those meetings, and you pay a small fee for it. And one of the few agencies that charge but also it provides some feeling of counter-accountability. So that’s one of the main things they do.
There is another service that I think they should do more of that I think is dependent on availability, but it’s a single company promotion which to me when you’re a U.S. company selling, especially e-commerce, is the one thing you can’t do. With the reach that they have put your products in the hands of consumers, get feedback, really engage, do a pop-up in a supermarket, or do a pop-up in a retail commercial center. They can host an event at a reception of an ambassador, or the highest available government officials and residents, where you can get these key opinion leaders in those, are solutions they can do. Depends on whether they want to.
Commerce Department. Is that right?
That’s what the Commercial is. Service under the Commerce Department.
And thank you. And that leads to another question I wanted to ask, which is basically how do U.S. companies find overseas joint venture partners or find these resources?
I would say there are a couple of other creative ways you can do it. Obviously attending trade shows and talking to associations is key. Let’s say you’re in the cosmetic space and you want to go to Cosmotron in Milan or in Hong Kong etcetera. But let’s say you wanted to go to a country that doesn’t have an event, but there’s an association of beauty manufacturers, or an association of beauty kind of industry leaders. Join that association for a few 100 bucks a year in a given country and then start to understand what’s going on there and who’s buying what.
Very good. And I know that the Commerce Department is not allowed to recommend, but they do have lists of potential contacts, right? So, they can’t necessarily recommend them.
Great question. You’re right. So, when you’re talking about overseas, for example, like a distribution, they actually have enough. They can when it’s an overseas company, I think the idea is they can’t show favoritism within the US. They have a service provider list, which is essentially a pay-to-play, but for the US, which I don’t think is the best list, but we’re overseas, you actually say I want to meet the best distributors in my product vertical and they will introduce you to those distributors. Now the best way to take effect is to actually come up with a prepared list of Hey… I’d love to meet these people or these organizations. Could you use the embassy and reach out to them? That’s probably one of the most efficient ways to do it.
Back a bit to e-commerce, which is one of your specialties. There are two kinds of e-commerce, one for effective, the very large companies that people know about such as Amazon and so forth, but then also for smaller companies. Does e-commerce differ or does strategy shift according to industry for example?
Yes, it does. You know, obviously, if you’re talking about, you know, beauty or nutrition, there may be a better fit for you to go direct to consumer, whereas if you’re talking about something like maybe in an apparel space, it might not be as beneficial. If you’re selling into China, for example, and you want to sell skincare and you don’t want to have animal testing, there are certain regulations. Some of them have been lessened to some degree recently, but in general, China will require animal testing if you do wholesale importing. But if you’re going to an individual consumer technically the consumer assumes the risk and so you could actually sell directly to that consumer via cross-border.
So, place your inventory in Hong Kong. In some cases, even in LA, Delaware, Oregon, etc. And you can actually place that into the hands of the consumer without actually having to get animal testing without adjusting your pricing, without adjusting even your organic labeling, for example. If you’re dealing with food products because it’s cross-border, there are definitely different strategies depending on your product category and your issues with compliance.
And does this apply worldwide or specifically to China, for example?
It’s not on a worldwide per-country basis. I believe Europe has some piece of that as well as does Brazil to some degree, but there are some challenges. Mexico has kind of blocked some of that as well. What it really comes down to is that certain countries have said, look, there are so many small parcels that we’re never going to get to all of these. Let’s kind of make it more possible to lessen the burden on us to oversee some of this. I think that’s more of probable a driver, certain countries will do. It certainly won’t. So, you really got to look at that. And we do that for our companies as well, yeah.
Are there any specific issues that… I mean you’re talking about sort of shipping and certain regulations and so forth, but are there other issues that may be country-specific or industry-specific?
Well, with apparel, one of the issues we have is if you’re selling let’s say something with fish and wildlife concerns. If you have a collar that you had no idea was actually made with fibers from some sort of animal of sorts, you may find yourself blocked in that export if you haven’t registered it properly or have the right certificate. In general, the flow is if you’re a seller, there’s a lot of people out there who are going to scare people and say there are all these unique regulations and these things you got to look at.
But at the end of the day, you’re selling a product online. You have three PL so a third-party logistics provider will probably take it for you, then aggregate it, possibly at a port. If you’re a smaller company or you do it yourself and then ship it over to that given market direct to the consumer. That’s like kind of a first phase when you’re doing that, the three PLs are going to do it. Ultimately, they’re not responsible. Arguably you are, but if you find the right ones and you vet them, they’re going to take care of it.
So, you don’t have to be on top of this all the time. Shopify is a perfect example of it. Shopify has taken every part of that vertical and tried to slowly cut away all the service providers and do it themselves under the Shopify Brand. And Shopify, you know, they have pay, they’ve got logistics, they’ve got a duty checkout counter. They’ve got the ability to launch products on different marketplaces.
So, slowly but surely, the merchant is not going to have to worry about all these things we talk about when fund people talk about trade and how complicated it is and how smart you know this. The truth is you don’t have to know this. You have to know how to build your brand and find your tribe.
And building your brand internationally can be difficult to say the least, depending on the country or the target market.
Absolutely. I would say that it’s not as difficult as it was in the past. I mean, if you were to say to somebody in, you know, pre-Internet, you were to say, hey, how do I build my brand overseas, where do I go, who’s buying what? What’s going on?
Right now, there’s a bunch of tools where you can actually search a marketplace in a given market and you can say, here are the products that are similar to mine. Here are the brands that are selling it. Here are the price points they’re selling at. Here are the volumes at which they’re selling. And here is where all their traffic comes from on their own website. It’s great. If you thought about that in the world of Main Street and you said, hey, I’ve got this great butcher shop. But how come Johnny is selling so much more and you walk down the street like, gosh, where are these people coming from? You’d have to have somebody sit down in a chair and ask everybody questions every time they go in the door. You actually have that right now.
It’s a remarkable world, but you’ve got to focus on it and your culture, and your company has to be aligned so that when you’re sitting in a meeting saying, hey, where’s our traffic coming from, 20 minutes of that time is spent saying, well, let’s look at it beyond the US. Where is it coming from? How come we all suddenly got this uptick? Yeah, on Instagram in France. And then you look, and you say, oh, there’s two of these influencers who keep riffing back and forth on how cool it is to have a checkered scarf when they’re walking on The Eiffel Tower. You start to look at that and say, oh, maybe there’s an opportunity.
It’s fascinating. Does e-commerce differ? I know you speak Spanish, and you know, obviously studied at INSEAD which is the primary Business School in Spain, and I believe you’ve done some work in Mexico.
So, when you’re dealing with e-commerce in Latin America, are there any strategies that are different from Asia or any other part of the world that you know of?
Yeah, I mean. I guess so. If I were to compare China and Latin America, I presume, I think there’s a… you know, if you’re saying, you know, comparing those two markets would be interesting… It’s a lot more costly to build your brand in China than it is in Latin America.
The competition for my share in China is probably some of the most expensive in the world because every major brand in the world for the last ten years has rushed into China, the consumer market there. It’s huge, but it’s also very different from the way we do business, and the social media kind of entities are different. So, it’s very costly to get anywhere in China.
So where in Latin America, there’s a ton of arbitrage and keyword spend in Latin America because people are not spending as much as they are in the US or elsewhere, and on Google and Facebook. So, I think you can get very far.
I guess the other issue is pricing. As a US exporter, for example, you know our products tend to be a little bit more expensive even if you’re sourcing in China. Somebody’s got to make the margin. What we do best is add a margin on top of things that someone else makes. So, you can do that, but in Latin America, China’s in there directly and they’re selling on Mercury, MercadoLibre and they’re selling on Amazon and elsewhere.
So, you’ve got to compete with a pretty aggressive group there. It’s odd because Latin America has become a proxy battleground for China and the US in terms of consumer sales.
Very interesting, yeah.
In a similar vein, I guess. There are certain products that appeal very much to the American market. Harley-Davidson is a great example. Their brand image, as you’re talking about brands, is sort of machismo and individualism and rebellion and independence and freedom and so forth and so forth.
Those values do not translate and do not work well in other cultures that are either authoritarian or group-oriented cultures, or where the countries don’t have wide open roads as we do, for example. So when a brand wants to take itself to other countries and their US values don’t resonate, how do you do that? Or have you seen examples of how they did that?
Yeah. Well, I think it’s a great thing. I just commented that I also represented Harley-Davidson as part of the auto portfolio in Beijing. And so, we actually did lobby the Chinese Government to allow Harley to exist inside the Third Ring Road.
So, there are ring roads and Beijing, oddly enough, you can’t go anywhere, even in a Harley. You can’t get around traffic in the third mode, and it was tough because the truth is the Chinese didn’t, they didn’t want the Harleys in there because they were loud and they were disruptive, and they also had people who didn’t follow the rules as well.
It was an interesting market barrier to explore. When you don’t realize it’s hard, you’re going to run into those issues, oddly enough, in terms of consumers, there was a nuance of similarity because even though you don’t have the muscle-bound kind of heart, not everybody drives a Harley is this way in the US even, but you actually did have a fair amount of machismo. But instead of muscles, it might have been bank accounts where it was very expensive to have a Harley.
So, you’d have people you know revving up through the wealthy areas just showing off their Harleys and seeing how many things they could add to their Harleys in terms of tweaking them. Where I think there’s, a misconception probably is, you know, oh, Halley’s not going to sell there because people don’t want it loud and they’re expensive.
So, there’s something. There’s a tribe everywhere, and your tribe, quite frankly, probably exists in most countries. There it might be much smaller in a country, or it might be looking for a very different thing. The question you have to ask yourself is, is it that tribe big enough in that given market and can I penetrate it easily enough to warrant me going in? Not necessarily, is that country’s market big enough? So that’s a different layer.
Answering your question, which I haven’t really answered in terms of how you adjust. You know the example with DeBeers and diamonds, you know as a I think a famous case study of… there in Japan, you know, love was not related to diamonds, and they’ve done a wonderful marketing of associating diamonds with a show of love.
So, you have a lot of challenges for the first few years of them coming out. And then I think they started to realize a young female executive and you probably know this actually because you were in Japan. You have those roots, the young female executive who buys herself a diamond. There was a lot of that kind of feeling and I think that happened also in China only probably a decade later because they also don’t even believe that marriage alone necessarily has to be equated with each other. Things that are very different are what we take for granted In the States as assumed.
It’s fascinating. And what did DeBeers do in Japan?
They went after the young female executives.
Yeah, it’s like. The advertisements around the young lady who has her friends sitting around. She’s got her diamond, and she’s got her briefcase and she’s kind of, you know, in the corporate world. There’s no man in sight. There’s no none of that element that we seem to have added or they’ve added for us.
Yeah, that’s fascinating. And diamonds were not tied to marriage, of course.
Right. There’s no love. Love, diamonds, and love diamonds in marriage are three things that do not necessarily go together. I find in Asia there’s a lot more pragmatism around relationships, right? So, knowing that you have a partnership with somebody doesn’t necessarily mean you have to love them. You know, what does that have to do with it? My friends in China would often say that Americans are like children; they still smile too much. They think things are so magical and they have this romantic view that clouds their judgment. And I would smile and then walk away.
No, that’s fascinating. It reminds me of… It’s a totally separate subject, but I also lived in Africa with young African children… Oh, some friends of mine were teachers of kindergarteners in Black African schools. The teachers were white, and the students couldn’t differentiate between the white teachers. The teacher said, “Can’t you tell? I’ve got blonde hair. She has black hair.” And the students said, “Oh no ma’am. You know you white people all look alike. You all look like dead fish.” It’s a perception.
Well, yeah, I say it’s kind of like classical music. If you don’t listen to it often, it kind of sounds similar and then you listen to it long enough and you’re like, oh, I totally get the differences. And yes, you know, being seven years in Beijing, you kind of get used to people. I’m not offended, they just look exactly the same.
So, it’s funny. On the subject of China, China has of course become a very controversial country now in the United States and the world. The perception is that it’s a bully and very overbearing and certainly a political rival, so many countries are exiting China to put their supply chains elsewhere and others still are entering China. What advice can you give to companies that are both entering China and others that are leaving China?
Yeah, I think it’s a sad state of affairs. Frankly, it’s very frustrating. Because you see, humans, I think fundamentally want the same things. But our governments and our economies force us into these positions. And then before we know it, we don’t know why we’re not liking each other, but we aren’t and we’re at that place. We do not like each other and, you know, luckily there are enough people who have worked internationally on the China side and on the US side know that there are great people on all sides, but I do think this is here to stay. I don’t think that China and the US have any reason to find a way back to complement your existence, mostly because we’re essentially teenagers seeing each other as rivals, and that’s we’re not going to get any less of a rival.
We’re both puffing our chests and we’re going to cause a lot of challenges going forward. I’d love to believe it’s wrong. I’d love to be wrong but from a commercial standpoint, when you’re doing business in China, there’s absolute truth to the fact that people do reflect in their purchasing what the government and the general sentiment is.
If you’re not a known brand, that almost supersedes the US or Europe less so, but if you have a US luxury brand, if you’re big enough, great. But if you’re coming in for the first time and a kind of consumer has an option of French luxury or goods, or the US, I think in general they’re going to avoid US power, so I think it’s harder and it was already pretty hard.
So, my word is, you know, bring a ton of money if you have to go in and hold it close to your chest and make sure you know who the partner is and make sure you’re constantly giving value, which was the case five years ago. But I always say to companies, it’s not personal, but your relationship will cease to exist the moment you stop adding value on a day-to-day basis. The Chinese merchant or the Chinese business partner will consistently reevaluate whether it’s useful to be in a contract with you and I say contract loosely because they don’t mean it as they’ve written something. I mean, should I still do business with you? Are you still adding value? And so, a lot of companies when they’re going in, they will isolate their SKU sets. So, they won’t necessarily sell their most recent line. And if a distributor wants that recent line, they’re going to have to work for it. And when they get it, there’s still another thing: You have to have a deep bench.
So, you’ve got to keep that power dynamic and it feels a little crass, I think for Americans we then too feel like, hey, we figured out we trust each other. We’d be working really well together. Here are my cards. Let’s just work transparently. It takes a little longer to do that in a healthy way than it would be here.
And what about companies leaving China? Do you see the exodus?
Oh U.S. companies, foreign Western companies, I see a massive exodus. Most of the people I went to Business School at INSEAD as you know, which is actually French and Singapore, and then Tsinghua has a campus there, but it was a joint program. So, we had a lot of Westerners in Mainland China, I would say 90% of them have left. The ones that have stayed or working for U.S. companies that are still there.
One of the biggest things that happened I want to say in the last couple of years and I’m sure somebody has a more specific answer to this. The Chinese tax law for ex-pats [ex-patriots] changed, and when you ask, like, oh well, they don’t like foreigners anymore and stuff like that, how does that… How does it really work? Well, here’s an example. They decided to tax ex-pats not only on their salaries but on the value of the rental that they lived in, even if the company was paying for it.
So now all of a sudden. Somebody who had an ex-pat package and is living in Shanghai at $5000 or more, rent plus their salary, they’re getting taxed on that whole amount, so that sent many people out. But there’s a lot… My friends have said that there’s been lots of aggression since I was there right before the Olympics, so there was definitely a different dynamic. It was opened up. Everyone’s excited to meet the world.
It’s not the best environment now for a lot of them, and then for doing business. There used to be… if the US and the western US and a Chinese company came up against each other and neither one of them was state-owned. Surprise, and they have the right paperwork. They could have a reasonable chance of the US company arguing in their favor. Technically, in the books, that’s probably still the same, but I think there’s a lot more bias. All things being equal.
Very fascinating. Is there anything else you’d like to add before we close or perhaps to tell us about what https://gettingtoglobal.org/ does?
Sure, you know, look, I’ve spent my time trying to help companies figure out how to go global through e-commerce not just in China, but everywhere. We built out a platform to do that and created the grow big initiative at growbig.org/programs. The idea is to help companies figure out the pieces of the puzzle including government agency and association support and private sector solutions. And then I am also the VanBassador, which started when I was commuting every week from Mexico City where my wife and my son were living.
So, I was interviewing brands on the road about how they’re staying local and going global as part of a project for the State of California. If you want to check it out, it’s called the VanBassador, a guy in a van. I’m talking about global expansion for those digital nomads out there, so that’s on vanbassador.com or YouTube on /Vanbassador or Instagram @vanbassador.
That’s great, very good.
This has been a fascinating episode with Joshua Halpern and thank you so much for joining us.
Hello, it is a pleasure. I look forward to speaking to you again.
Thank you and I hope you will all join us next week for another edition of Global Gurus and their stories of international business. Thank you.
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