The export-import woman Trade: At the World Trade Center Institute, Penelope Menzies employs her skills to connect Maryland sellers and buyers with overseas buyers and sellers.

June 03, 1996|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

Penelope Menzies has the requisite credentials to run Maryland's World Trade Center Institute and help broker the state's international commerce: overseas experience, a fat Rolodex of export contacts, seven years working in Maryland trade.

But some of her best attributes, her admirers say, don't show up on a resume: Bargaining skills. Ability to drum up cash from private donors. Enthusiasm sufficient to shame a cheerleader.

Menzies joined the institute at its creation in 1989 as assistant to its first director, Lisa Nitze. The agency had little money and less furniture in its early days.

Menzies spotted a chance to get free desks and chairs from a defunct company, but they had to be picked up that day. Everybody at the institute was out of the office.

"I told her, 'It's too bad we can't take advantage of that,' " said Nitze, now executive director of Prosperity New Jersey, an economic development group.

"She said, 'Absolutely not. No problem.' She rented a pickup truck. She drove down, made friends with the warehouse guys, had them load the furniture. She drove back to the World Trade Center, made friends with the maintenance guys there, and they moved it up to the office."

Since October, Menzies has been executive director of the institute, an export-information broker, research house, educational institution and commerce matchmaker.

Maryland's export business and the institute itself have matured since the days when it lacked furniture, which is a good thing, many business people believe. As the wave of federal money that swept over the state in the 1980s continues to recede, international markets present an opportunity to make up part of the difference. Maryland businesses "have got to look outward for growth," Menzies said.

"They've got to look for exports for growth. If they've got a sound product, and they're selling pretty well here, that product will sell just as well, if not better, overseas."

The Maryland World Trade Center Institute, part of a loosely affiliated chain of more than 300 counterparts around the world, depends on government for only 24 percent of its $675,000 annual budget, down from more hefty subsidies a few years ago. The rest comes from member businesses and clients of the institute's seminars and research facilities.

Today, the institute absorbs the Maryland International Center, another nonprofit group that focused on building the state's educational and cultural ties with other parts of the world. The move, previously announced, gives the institute sponsorship of the Governor's International Forum, a fall showcase for Maryland commerce formerly sponsored by MIC, and MIC's guide to interpreters and translators.

The merger will boost the institute's staff from six to seven and its budget by perhaps 20 percent, Menzies said. But its core mission remains: connecting Maryland buyers with overseas sellers, and vice versa. The institute receives 30 to 45 queries a week, Menzies said, from businesses seeking everything from basic trade statistics to detailed questions about, say, Indonesian tariff regulations.

"They responded very rapidly," said Charles Throckmor- ton, Asian regional manager for Ward Machinery Co., a two-year member, of a recent research job by the institute. "The data they gave me is very comprehensive."

Another recent inquiry concerned layoff laws in India, said Andrea De Leon, the institute's director of marketing and information services.

Even large manufacturers with extensive overseas experience sometimes seek help, she added. As a manufacturer, "your primary job is selling the equipment you have; your primary job is not gathering the economic data," she said.

"And then," Menzies added, "we get ones who have just woken up that morning and have said, 'Well, I'm going to try export.' In that case, we won't help them. We will send them to Howard Community College," which offers brief, elementary export courses. The institute's three-day export seminar is its most basic. Maryland sold $6.22 billion in products to international buyers last year, a 6.4 percent increase, according to the Department of Business and Economic Development.

The institute was created by Gov. William Donald Schaefer and opened its doors in 1990. After Nitze, James Hughes was its director before he left last year to become director of international trade for the state's Department of Business and Economic Development.

Menzies, 39, has been there from the start. Previously she turned a journalism degree from the University of Maryland into a public relations job at the National Geographic Society.

Her background is international. She was born and raised in Borneo and attended boarding school in England. Her father, a British water engineer, moved the family from job to job. She has lived in Turkey and Singapore, too, but has resided in the United States since 1970.

She came to the University of Maryland after her father moved to Bethesda to work for the World Bank.

Privately, some business people say that rhetoric from public officials about Maryland's chances in international commerce amounts as much to window dressing and an attempt to seem pro-active as to substance. But they're glad the World Trade Center Institute exists.

The best indication that businesses value the institute, Nitze said, is the fact that more than 200 of them are willing to pay from $350 to $1,500 in annual dues.

With Menzies' "extraordinary people skills," and Maryland's prospects, Nitze expects that number to grow.

Pub Date: 6/03/96

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