By Drew Dixon
There’s a lot of talk lately about Jacksonville being a bigger player in the world of international business.
It’s more than just talk. As a corporate executive in Jacksonville, Thomas Johnston knows it’s a fact that the global market is playing a larger role every day in business.
As the director of product management at KLS Martin’s North American headquarters in Jacksonville, Johnston said he needs as much of a global edge as possible in managing the cranial surgical device manufacturer. Johnston said his involvement in the graduate studies on-the-road program at Jacksonville University’s Davis College of Business is getting him that edge as he traveled to Germany as part of the program a year ago.
“I work for an international firm right now. …” Johnston said. “But this [JU] trip really allowed you to sit down with leaders from CEOs to other vice presidents within industry, to talk about their challenges and how it’s different working through different cultures.”
Johnston and other students met with eight companies in Munich and Berlin in the summer of 2013 for a week. It was a broad range of industries including automakers, information technology companies, marketing firms and a solar panel development firm.
Johnston graduates with an executive master’s degree in business administration from JU Saturday.
“As I deal with the international colleagues of my company, it helps from the perspective of understanding the different cultural nuances,” Johnston said.
After years of not being on the front burner of the JU business school, the international forays are taking on a more prominent role, said Don Capener, dean of the business college. Out of the 205 current graduate students in the business school, about 20 of those are focusing on international business and are steeped in foreign travel.
Capener said at least half of those international business graduate students want to stay in Jacksonville to develop international commerce here.
“We see that growing significantly in the next five years with about 25 graduates every year with lots of training in international business,” Capener said.
Capener said there had been an international business curriculum for undergraduates for years. But the revamped graduate program emphasizes international business exposure and that brought new faculty hires and financial investments from local business, most notably Jed and Dan Davis, for whom the business college is named. The program has branched out with students and faculty traveling to locations across the world, including Africa, Southeast Asia, Western Europe and South America.
“It’s more than just student exchanges, we have faculty working on research together. We have all kinds of new initiatives that are making international business more than just learning about it through videos and cases,” Capener said.
Ultimately, the First Coast’s academic and business community will have a higher profile with the enhanced business global perspective, Capener said.
“We don’t want to just teach students. We want to make a business impact. In order to do that, we have to be involved with businesses and help them be globally competitive,” Capener said.
One of the key lessons learned from going through the program and the trip to Germany, Johnston said, was meeting with a Chinese manufacturing firm that develops solar panels. He said that company established operations in Germany, hoping to tap into the reputation of German engineering prowess.
“They wanted to leverage the German product quality and German manufacturing name so people around the world didn’t associate their product with, maybe, less quality manufacturing,” Johnston said. “It was fascinating see the strategy as a corporation. … Now it is actually a German product, not a Chinese product.”
In Johnston’s current job, KLS Martin is looking at expanding into Central America, it already has sales in Canada and has European operations headquartered in Germany.
The exposure to the international perspective from different industries, Johnston said, has prepared him to use many of those corporate strategies.
“It’s utilizing specialization. … I think that’s really the future of international business; being able to find where the skills are that you can leverage. That can be raw material somewhere, labor or technological skills,” Johnston said.
And he’s the prototypical student that Capener sees as leading the way in the resurrection of a program that started about 10 years ago.
Putting the global agenda at the forefront comes at a crucial time in the evolution of the business community in Jacksonville. The Jacksonville Jaguars are now owned by Shad Khan, a native of Pakistan who also now owns a soccer team in London and has agreed to play an NFL football game in that city for the next few years.
One Spark, an entrepreneurial crowdfunding festival, drew an estimated 260,000 people to downtown Jacksonville this month for the five-day event, and organizers are expanding with a festival planned for Berlin in September. The Jacksonville Port Authority is seeking a deepening of the channels in the St. Johns River in an effort to attract more international shipping.
In June, Matrecia James, associate dean of the JU business college, is leading a contingent to Japan. She’ll oversee about a dozen people, including eight students she has taught as a professor of leadership and management.
She’s coming off a trip with students to Taipei, Taiwan, in February. The trip to Japan will include business engagements with corporate officials along with visits to academic institutions from June 19-27. The interactions will take place in Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. Among those they’ll be meeting with will be officials from the Amazon corporate operations in Japan.
“In order to create leaders, they need personal experiences so they have the opportunity to see how things actually work. It’s not just things they’ve heard about or talked about,” James said. “They can come back and infuse them into our local business community.”
The Japan trip will be co-led by Capener, who speaks fluent Japanese.
“You notice that in some ways, people are much the same wherever you go. But you also notice that international culture impacts the way we view the world,” James said.
Ultimately, Johnston said, the program brings a realistic approach to conducting business with foreign entities.
“Having the exposure and sitting down with professionals and really being able to sit across the table, having a discussion about the challenges and real-life challenges, not just the academic challenges, that is the huge benefit of the program,” Johnston said.