Jeff Henderson started his representing/trading business while living in Japan from 1987-89. This was just after the Plaza Accords in New York City, when it was becoming clear to him that “there were going to be fundamental shifts in the flow of international trade within the Pacific Rim.”

He quickly figured out how to become involved: as a selling and sourcing agent. He put up SPAP Company to trade in a wide range of products, including household goods, bathroom goods, promotional products, tools, outdoor products, and security products.

Henderson discussed his experiences in Asian trade with Editor-in-Chief Jet Magsaysay.

How did you capitalize on those “fundamental shifts in trade”?
I knew just how dynamic Southeast Asia would become. I had traveled to the region often and knew where to look for products. With my degree in mass communication, I also tried to figure out how TV could be used to sell products. But not just for sales: Because of the phenomenon of “As Seen on TV” stickers, retailers realized that this was a great way to move products off shelves. And many of those products were being made in Asia. Where in Asia do you source your products?

Most of my principals’ sourcing activities are done out of the Hong Kong/china corridor. In addition, one of the companies I represent buys sensors in Singapore, where he has found the best-designed sensors for his product. I have made numerous round-trips to Asia myself in the last decade, building sourcing networks, and I plan to continue traveling to the region regularly. 

What makes for a successful trip to Asia?
A successful trip is one with a lot of pre-planning, done with a multitude of e-mail messages and faxes to my contact, explaining what I want to accomplish. I have enlarged my network many times over by putting myself into situations where I knew no one and then had to get more creative. Fortunately, I love traveling and meeting new people, so the process has been enjoyable.

How do you obtain sourcing information?
I usually use ASM magazines, but I also use Asian Sources On-Line. Everything is so current that the thought of having to find all of the suppliers by oneself is rather daunting. I have found so much critically important information from the ASM Web site that it almost gets to the point of overload.

I also try to read obscure magazines, newspapers, journals, association letters, and the like.

In addition, the networks I’ve built in different parts of the world supply information. The key is to act on information before the competition does. Inertia always stalks us. Even a week’s delay spells the difference between getting the product first or watching from the sidelines.

What makes for a successful supplier relationship?
Since I have lived in Asia and have traveled to about 10 or the countries, I have gained knowledge that removes a lot of the abstract aspects of trading with Asian colleagues. But more than that, my study of comparative religions enables me to appreciate the deeply felt cultural notions that all humans bring to the table. And without sincere respect, any relationship is vulnerable to being ruptured when a dispute comes up. 

How has the Asian financial crisis affected your business?
The people I represent can obtain real savings from buying their components in Asia in the next 12 to 24 months.

It’s becoming clear, however, that the buying power of consumers in those Asian countries has been drastically reduced. This will reduce the amounts of products they can purchase themselves. So I am seeing a shift: More of the production of these components and finished products are transferring from Asian to the United States, Europe, and Latin America.

But we should not fool ourselves. Asia is just too dynamic and too important to roll over. I am sure the core characteristics of the cultures in the area, plus the IMF programs, will help to rectify the situation. I think it is important to remember that the United States went through this IMF process back in the early 1960s.