Entrepreneur. Tarik Ayasun
Company. Taray International
Key. Meeting customers face-to-face remains important even as technology improves communications.
The Marco Island Chamber of Commerce is best known for promoting tourism on the vacation island, but some might be surprised to learn it plays a part in global trade.
Foreign companies sometimes require the stamp of a chamber of commerce before they import goods from the U.S. That's because in many countries such a stamp is an official seal of approval by a governmental organization.
When he receives such a request, Tarik Ayasun doesn't argue the point. Instead, he runs down the stairs from his office above the island chamber of commerce and a helpful person there dutifully stamps the necessary documents.
Ayasun describes this amusing routine with a twinkle in his eye. As people in business know, the U.S. government has nothing to do with chambers of commerce in this country.
A successful exporter of tire-retreading equipment from the U.S. to 70 countries around the world, Ayasun is the president of Taray International. And he's based on Marco Island, a place where retreading usually means buying a new pair of flip-flops.
Taray is tucked between a real estate title firm and the island's Power Squadron office.
But don't let Ayasun's unassuming global corporate headquarters deceive you. The company generated sales of $12 million in 2010, a 26% increase over 2009 thanks in part to the dollar devaluation relative to other currencies.
Turkish-born Ayasun, 62, has decades of experience moving goods across borders, learning the trade on the rough docks of New York City. As the chamber of commerce routine shows, the job requires being creative when fulfilling unusual requests for paperwork.
For example, some overseas importers require you to furnish a “certificate of conformity” before they pay for goods. Don't know what that is? Neither does Ayasun. But he's drafted one and the official-looking document passes muster.
Of course there's a head-spinning alphabet soup of acronyms that are key to determining you get paid on time — or paid at all. For example, is it better to deliver goods ex quay or free on board? And what's the difference between ex works and free alongside ship?
Ayasun says exporters get little help from U.S. banks, whose employees aren't savvy handling exports. International trade relies on the banking system to ensure proper payment because buyers and sellers depend on financial institutions to oversee the exchange of goods and money when a shipment reaches its destination.
“The banks have no idea,” Ayasun groans. “It's demoralizing. There's a huge market out there and they're not tapping into it.”
Maybe we shouldn't be surprised that only 1% of U.S. companies export and of those 58% export to one country. But for savvy entrepreneurs like Ayasun, that means opportunity. Today, 30% of his company's revenues come from managing exports for other U.S. firms.
Friends on the docks
When he started his company in New Jersey in 1979, Ayasun borrowed $50,000 from his father, a Turkish entrepreneur in Istanbul. With the seed money, Ayasun flew around the world offering to sell and ship U.S.-made tire retreading equipment. “I'd go to a hotel and flip through the yellow pages,” he says.
Trucking companies often retread their tires to make them last longer. In some countries, individual car owners do this too because it's less expensive than buying new tires. “My first customer was from Trinidad,” Ayasun recalls.
After he secured orders, Ayasun would fly back to New Jersey, order the equipment and with the help of his father-in-law, drive it to the New York City docks for shipping. “It was one man and a truck,” he recalls.
Ayasun set up a little desk inside the truck with a typewriter so he could draft the bill of lading while his father-in-law drove to the docks. He learned the names of the dockworkers and how to pay the longshoremen to move his shipment to the front of the line.
“If you know what goes on, you can do it,” Ayasun says. “If they say they can't load the truck, you go there, drive the forklift and load the truck yourself.”
Ayasun initially learned the tire-exporting business for a U.S. firm in South America and was successful despite the fact that he didn't know how to speak Spanish. Now a U.S. citizen, Ayasun came to the U.S. on a soccer scholarship to the University of Maryland in 1969, where he was the goalie on the championship team.
Ayasun jokes that being a goalie and starting a business are similar. “It's 90% crazy and 10% courage,” he laughs. “I didn't even think twice.”
Now, Ayasun helps U.S. companies manage their exports. He likes to tell the story of meeting a clueless executive of an American company who routinely discarded letters of credit from foreign companies — until Ayasun spotted one crumpled on the floor by the wastebasket and offered to handle the transaction that was worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Move to Marco
Ayasun bought a lot on Marco Island from a customer in Trinidad. Like so many people who purchased on Marco in the early years, he bought the waterfront property sight unseen.
In 1986, Ayasun and his wife, Janice, decided to move from New Jersey to Marco Island permanently. At the time, Ayasun had built his business to 36 employees in New Jersey. “Only one person followed me,” he says.
Ayasun says finding qualified people remains a big challenge. It took four years to rebuild his staff after moving to Marco Island. Taray is a family business. Janice Ayasun is Taray's chief financial officer and Jerol Ayasun, Tarik Ayasun's son, is general manager. (Ayasun's daughter, Suzan Thompson, is a major in the U.S. Marine Corps.)
What's more, when he moved to Marco Island in 1986, no bankers knew how to manage international-trade transactions. “We have to train people,” Ayasun says. “We start from zero.”
Advances in technology have made it easier to do business from places such as Marco Island. Ayasun uses e-mail, Skype and checks references using online tools such as Pipl.com. But nothing beats meeting customers face-to-face, Ayasun says. “That's the biggest portion of our budget — travel and entertainment,” he says.
Trust works both ways. In many countries, customers expect you to visit them in person regularly. In 1995, Ayasun says his company lost a large customer in Singapore because he wasn't visiting as frequently as he had in the past. “It's mostly selling yourself,” Ayasun says. “They wire hundreds of thousands of dollars to you.”
Because it's more difficult to collect payment in foreign countries, it's essential to know your customer and establish trust. “Everyone will take advantage of you,” Ayasun warns.
International trade attracts its share of shady characters. Ayasun recalls when two Colombian men came to see him one day to buy $600,000 worth of rubber tubes. They arrived with a suitcase filled with cash. Suspecting they were drug dealers seeking to launder money, Ayasun asked the men to leave and had the police follow them off Marco Island.
In another case, a group of Argentines asked to meet him at a hotel in New Jersey. It turns out they were trying to ship ammunition that was going to be used by the Argentine military in the Falklands conflict with Great Britain. Ayasun excused himself from the meeting to use the restroom and immediately left the hotel through a back door.
“Be very, very cautious,” Ayasun counsels. “So many things can go wrong.”