In many companies the art of moving goods across international borders is viewed as black magic. In fact, I have a colleague who keeps a magic wand in his desk just for such emergencies.
When someone from the inventory or shipping department begins screaming about back orders and delays at customs, he simply produces the potent wand, whisks it mindlessly through the air, and presto-chango the consignment appears… sometimes.
In many companies, the trade compliance group (if there is one) doesn't get the respect or resources they need to do an adequate job. Senior management maintains a "don’t look behind the curtain" mentality and is reluctant to commit additional resources.
Because as long as the "Wizard" (a role played by the import or export department) keeps delivering inventory and no one with guns or search warrants is in the lobby, they take a leap of faith that the organization is compliant. But remember what happens when we just assume?
This business we call international trade and/or supply chain is full of land mines and mantraps, and if you take your eye off the ball for one minute, you can find yourself in significant trouble.
Sadly, some companies totally neglect the necessity to be compliant until it's too late, and the lobby is full of auditors or other enforcement types. When this happens, it can be a very painful experience. Responding to an audit, or worse yet a subpoena, is time consuming, extremely expensive, and it can have a profound impact on your transactions for years to come.
Import-Export Compliance Starts at the Top
The cornerstone of any best-in-class import or export trade compliance program starts in the board room and executive offices. Without the unconditional support of senior leadership, building a respected and highly compliant program becomes exponentially more difficult.
In some companies the trade compliance department can be viewed as a nuisance or blocker, when in reality they are only trying to protect the company's supply chain and reputation with the authorities.
The senior leadership of any company engaged in global trade must recognize that the soft dollars saved on export or import compliance programs might be invisible or difficult to quantify; but all it takes is one penalty case or one fine to quickly erase the hard dollar savings gleaned from cutting corners on trade compliance, not to mention the damage done to the company's reputation and suffering the full wrath and powers of the federal government.
So, if the support isn't there today, the obvious question then becomes: "How do I garner and then maintain executive sponsorship for trade compliance at my company?"
Gaining Support for Import-Export Compliance
There is no foolproof way, and it, of course, depends largely on corporate culture and your position within the organization. In some companies it takes a large penalty, audit or some other enforcement action before there is an awakening among the executive leadership.
With that as my caveat, I've found that there are two individuals in the corporate hierarchy that you should get as close as possible to: the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and the General Counsel. Why? Because the CFO can easily relate to the work done in the trade compliance arena with tax laws they must comply with.
By using the tax analogy you just might find them a little more receptive. After all, a customs entry is just like a tax return wherein your company is making certain representations and declarations under the threat of penalty if they are inaccurate. And, you're not just doing it quarterly or annually, you're doing it every day.
Also it is the CFO's duty to protect the company's purse strings, and if they are awakened to what kinds of penalties could be levied against the company for errors this also tends to get their attention.
Once you have the CFO convinced, it is time to move on to the General Counsel because no one in the company should understand the importance and necessity of adhering to all applicable laws and regulations more than the resident lawyer. If they have any doubts, you might suggest that they read up on the Federal Sentencing Guidelines or the customs penalty statutes; it might just alter their thinking.
Both of these individuals, the CFO and General Counsel, should have the ear of the president and/or the board at your company. Once you have penetrated the board room with your case for building a highly compliant program you should be well on your way to adequate funding and the resources necessary for your trade compliance initiatives.
This article was first published in August 2010 and has been updated to include current information, links and formatting.