Business Elevated Podcast (Episode 59)
This podcast series features business and government leaders discussing what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. This episode includes a conversation between Ryan Starks, managing director of business services at GOED, and Aaron Starks, vice president at the World Trade Center Utah.
Welcome to the Business Elevated Podcast, where we discuss what it’s like to live and work in the great state of Utah. Did you know Utah is frequently ranked the best state for business by Forbes? This podcast is a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Thanks for joining the conversation.
Ryan Starks: (0:22) Welcome to the Business Elevated podcast. I’m Ryan Starks, managing director of business services at the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Today, I’m excited for our guest, who happens to be my younger brother, Aaron Starks. Here’s the vice president at the World Trade Center Utah. Aaron and I will have a lot of fun things to discuss, including his new role. And I look forward to welcoming him to the podcast. Aaron, how are you doing today?
Aaron Starks: (0:51) Good. It’s good to be with you. Rare that two brothers in one state can work together so closely. Looking forward to this, Ryan. Thanks for having me.
Ryan Starks: (1:01] Aaron joined the World Trade Center Utah recently. And so we’ll let him tell a little bit about his experience. Aaron, I probably know you better than anybody listening, but for our listeners, why don’t you tell us just a little bit about yourself, your background, your experience, what made you become the person that you are today?
Aaron Starks: (1:21) Thanks, Ryan. Great question. Well, I have great older brothers who have been mentors, examples, and friends. Friends above everything else in my life at all times. And so I’m grateful for that. And we also come from great parents who’ve always been good examples of hard work and dedication.
I am grateful to live here in the state of Utah. Don’t we live in a beautiful state?
Ryan Starks: (1:42) We do, especially growing up in Huntsville, Weber County. That is the epitome of all things rural.
Aaron Starks: (1:53) It’s something I think many of us take for granted growing up in Utah and the beautiful mountains and lifestyle we enjoy. The economy is so vibrant and dynamic that guys like you and me can be born in Huntsville into a family with no prior higher education experience. Still, we can grow up with dreams, ambitions, and goals. We never feel the effects of being a first-generation college student or not having an abundance of economic opportunities. We can chart out and choose our future because the resources, opportunities, and relationships are there.
It’s great to grow up here. And I love living here. After I graduated from the University of Utah, I was hired by a local company with international ties, Franklin Covey, one of Utah’s biggest companies doing great things with a great mission. They hired me as employee number three in their international division to take their programs global. That was a really interesting experience at a young age. I was able to engage with a startup company, and we were scrappy and entrepreneurial.
I found myself suddenly doing market research and analyzing markets. I was on a plane at 22 years old going to Taipei trying to find a distributor. Incredible experiences that I wouldn’t otherwise get. And that experience quickly led to an invitation to open our Tokyo office, which later became Asia headquarters for the company. I hired and managed a full-time staff. We grew to about 40 great people. It is a great culture, but it was a trying experience. Raising young kids in a foreign country is hard. Isn’t it?
Ryan Starks: (4:03) It is, especially when they’re at that age.
Aaron Starks: (4:07) Absolutely. We were dealing with a lot of ambiguity. My wife and I moved into the apartment. The company paid for some transportation from the airport. We were dropped off late at night in our new apartment, and we went in and turned on the light. And there was our home. It was two bedrooms, not even a thousand square feet in all of its glory. And it was completely bare. There was not a single paper towel. There was not a cup for drinking water, and we had our bags, and that was it. And that’s how we started our three-and-a-half-years experience in Tokyo. In retrospect, I couldn’t have been more grateful for it. It led to some great professional and personal opportunities and some great success.
We started growing quickly. We were doing a million dollars in revenue and developing partnerships. We created a foundation separate from the company to house contributions from private companies. We were giving half a million dollars back to Japanese public schools and clients in underserved communities. Things were going well. And then we were acquired by a Japanese company out of Nagoya, Japan. It was not an exit strategy but something that we had anticipated.
When the acquisition went through, I moved back home, and then our family of three had grown to a family of four. My daughter was born in Japan, so we welcome the opportunity to be back. I know my wife wanted to be with family and friends whom we missed and loved. Coming back to Utah was great. I was asked then asked to run our Asia operation. So we had a footprint of about 23 countries in Asia, spanning Northern China down to Fiji. And then over to Pakistan in South Asia. Our footprint was very economically diverse. It was an adventure. And so I found myself on a plane going to and from each of these markets working with ministries of trade, ministries of education departments of commerce, trying to get our content to more clients.
I couldn’t be more grateful for Franklin Covey. They gave me a great opportunity. As I was coming back to the United States from Japan, I decided that I would round out my experience and go back to graduate school.
Ryan Starks: (6:30) So with that, Aaron, I think that’s a great pivot because I think there’s a story to be told about you living in Japan. If we can just talk about that for a moment. We know you served a church mission in Japan. Your Japanese was probably pretty decent. Tell us about having to go back now, learning the language of business, and your wife going to speak Japanese. So how was that transition for you?
Aaron Starks: (6:59) It was a transition. We all have many people in the state that have the opportunity to serve a mission. And it’s an absolute privilege to be able to go and live somewhere else. Learn the culture and fall in love with people who are different from you and teach you many principles and skills. I went back in a business capacity overly competent in my ability to speak Japanese because I had been a missionary there years before. I quickly learned the language of business, religion, and casual everyday language is different.
I’ll never forget, I was in a meeting with one of our partners in Japan, a fortune 500 publicly-traded company. And in that very top-down culture, when you meet with the CEO of that company, your tie is tied to perfection. Your shoes are polished. Just to get that meeting, you have bowed to about 250 faces that you’ll probably never see again. There is a whole cultural element to doing business in Asia, and especially in Japan, that’s unique and complex. I remember feeling some nerves. As he stepped into the room and we were shown to our seats. Everything you do in Japan is nuanced. The way that you receive a business card. You receive it with both hands, bow, and always read the business card. You recite the name on the business card if you can read it because there’s some complexity with some of the Japanese characters. And then you state out loud the position of the person that you’re meeting with. So Ryan Starks, managing director of business services or whatever it may be. You do that because that validates the person who just gave you the card. In Japan, their identity is stated on that card. That’s how they bring honor to their family by the role or position they have. Then you sit down and place the business card directly in front of you during the entire meeting. You never put it in the way because that’s disrespectful.
I’m remembering a lot of this as I’m sitting down with our partner at our first meeting. So far, the meeting is off to a great start. He’s smiling. I’m smiling. I had two of our staff members sitting in the chairs next to me. I could tell how seriously the Japanese staff was taking this opportunity. I took it seriously, but I don’t think to the same extent that they were because they were sitting across the table from somebody very public in their community they grew up with. And I’m sitting there, and we’re having a great dialogue. Suddenly, he said something that I didn’t understand, I understood about 80% of the sentence, but there were about two words that I didn’t know, and everything else hinged on these two words that I didn’t know. And I stopped the meeting, which was a little humiliating, turned to my assistant, and asked what a certain word meant. That does not inspire a whole lot of confidence in you because then they’re wondering if I understood any of what they’re saying. She said the word he used was amortization. And so you can imagine I was about eight months into this, and I had a list of hundreds of words that I would review on the train ride home every night. It was about a 45-minute train ride from downtown Tokyo to our apartment in the suburbs. And so that’s what I did. I learned and wrote down things. It was baptism by fire.
Ryan Starks: (11:00) Fascinating. If we were to put you on the spot now and ask you to tell us how to say amortization in Japanese, how would you respond?
Aaron Starks: (11:09) Well, it depends on the type of amortization. Even that becomes hard. There are so many ways that you can say that. It was good because it taught me that it’s okay not to know everything. I just had to take a step back and realize I may never be fluent in this language, and that’s okay. But I’m just going to learn what I can every day.
Ryan Starks: (11:45) We want to get back to your MBA and then learn more about how you ended up at the World Trade Center Utah. But first, I want to point out that while based in Japan, you experienced all the great things the Japanese culture has to offer, but you also traveled to many other countries.
What are some of the other countries, and what was your experience there?
Aaron Starks: (12:06) I had the unique opportunity and experience to travel to about 23 countries while with Franklin Covey. And my experience in each market was very different. There were countries I loved going to where I felt at home. For example, I could go to Bangkok and feel right at home in Thailand. I know the cities and restaurants I enjoy. I feel comfortable now. I feel the same way in Jakarta, Indonesia. I love the people. I feel very comfortable being in my skin in those countries. It is interesting, as I think about the journey that we went through as a company, as we explored markets and tried to decide how to enter into these markets. As I look back, I think about how scrappy and how entrepreneurial we had to be. We didn’t have the benefit of working with the World Trade Center; if I had known about the services that they offer, I would have engaged right away. I remember being on the phone late at night trying to get into Pakistan and Cambodia and not having a source or lead.
I didn’t have any prior experience and didn’t speak the language. The cards were stacked against me. I remember being in our apartment in Tokyo, making international calls all night long to Myanmar. I was doing homework on companies that were succeeding and looking up how different industries and segments behaved.
I narrowed it down to about a list of 20 companies. and I started calling. I would get company voicemails I couldn’t understand. And that was if I even dialed the number correctly because of the long-distance codes. You have to learn how to dial that.
Ryan Starks: (14:01) It’s a process.
Aaron Starks: (14:03) It’s totally a process. I remember I got through to a great training company that later became our exclusive partner for Myanmar. The receptionist picked up the phone, and she said something in Burmese. I introduced myself and asked if there was someone there that speaks English. And then she repeated what she said in Burmese in English. She asked how she could help me with a strong accent? I then asked to speak to the director of the company or the CEO. I knew that if I said anything more complex than that, it might get lost in translation. The next thing I know it’s silent, and then a voice picks up. They more or less said, ‘Hi, who is this’? And I said, ‘Hi, my name is Aaron Starks. I’m calling with Franklin Covey International; we are a leader in the space of education and training; how are you?’ I waited, and they asked if this was a sales call. I said, no, it’s not a sales call and. If you could give me two minutes of your time, you won’t regret it. He said your two minutes starts now. And I had to give a pitch in two minutes as to why they should be our exclusive provider for the country and why they should meet with me. I took two minutes and was able to generate enough interest on their side. Next thing I know I’m flying into Yanmar and meeting with the CEO of this company. I’m meeting with their clients. They’re handing over their financial books, and I’m doing some due diligence. And about three months later, we had an agreement in place. That was my experience in Pakistan and Cambodia. And that’s how we grew one country at a time.
Ryan Starks: (15:55) When you think about where we grew up in Huntsville, Utah. The extent of our globalization included trips to Ogden, and maybe if we reached out far, all the way to Salt Lake.
Aaron Starks: (16:06) That was a different world.
Ryan Starks: (16:09) It was the big time for us. For you to have this experience, I think it is fascinating. I like to think of professional experiences as stepping stones that always prepare us for something new and different. So you returned from your commitment to Japan, and you had wonderful business experiences there.
You decided to pursue an MBA at Duke University, which is a prestigious school. You get through that, and then you transition into the World Trade Center Utah. I don’t think there could have been a better fit for you personally. Tell us about the World Trade Center Utah. How was it created? What drew you there?
Aaron Starks: (16:46) World Trade Center Utah is a fascinating organization. Gov. Jon Huntsman looked at the economy in Utah and knew that we were going to diversify. He knew we were going to grow, and he had a great vision for the state at that time. He wanted to bring an organization to the state of Utah that can help accelerate and catalyze this growth for international companies. In other words, he wanted to put a team in place in the state that can fill what we call foreign direct investment. Go to Adobe, Samsung, and Mitsubishi and invite them to open up an American headquarters in Utah.
Conversely, we needed a team in place to take top companies and pick some markets for them to be successful. And so, World Trade Center Utah was established in 2006 and is part of a network of over 300 in over 100 countries. A lot of people don’t realize it’s an association. And more often than not, the World Trade Center is confined to a singular city. You’ll have a World Trade Center in Las Vegas or World Trade Center in Los Angeles, but it is very rare to have a World Trade Center representing an entire state.
So at the time, we did very well in negotiating the terms to bring the World Trade Center to Utah. We got the rights to represent the association in the entire state of Utah. The vision for the organization has always been that we would be the state’s authority and thought leader for global engagement and affairs. In the 14 or 15 years we’ve been in existence, we’ve done some very exceptional things for Utah companies. This year, we have about a million, $1.1 million of grant money that we’re giving back to Utah companies to help offset and subsidize the cost of their global expansion.
Ryan Starks: (18:49) If a company wanted to learn more about that grant money, where would they go?
Aaron Starks: (18:53) They can engage directly with us through our website. For example, they can learn all about our products, services, and grant opportunities all online. We have a very good social media following on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram. But we also have great partners. Ryan and his team are great partners.
Within the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, you’ve been with us since the beginning and are one of our founding members. We work with great corporations like Zions Bank, Larry H. Miller, and others. The task for us is how do we create a comprehensive service that takes the complexity out of global trade and applies to all Utah companies. We have every industry in the world represented in the state of Utah. How do you create a service that helps them regardless of their industry, product offering, and so forth?
We’ve developed a comprehensive three-phase process that allows a company to select a market when they walk through our doors. That may sound very simple, but I got to tell you every week I work with companies who manufacture great products. They are making about a million dollars in revenue in rural Utah. Now, they would like to jump to Bangladesh. I congratulate them on starting their company and ask them why Bangladesh. They responded because my brother served a mission there, or visited Bangladesh on a college study abroad. I ask them to back that up a couple of steps. That’s not a great reason to go to Bangladesh. I tell them if we follow a good process at the end of it, you’ll feel informed and confident, and you’ll know that Bangladesh, or wherever, is the right market for you.
We have a market selection process for all industries. From there, we engage our partners. For example, if you realize that going to Beijing is the market that’s most advantageous for you at the end of the process, then we connect with either in-house, or one of our service providers, and equip you with the services.
If you need website translation optimization, or if you need to obtain a letter of credit because you’re protecting your assets as they’re shipped virtually from Utah to Beijing, we have service providers who can do that. So we’re going to prepare you for prime time, and prime time is that last stage of development. We’re going to get you in the room where it happens with potential buyers, sellers, and others working within that industry. So that at the end of engagement with World Trade Center Utah you’ve not only selected a market, prepared for market entry, but you’ve entered the market and gotten a sale.
This is new to the state of Utah. And I’ve got to say it’s been a hit we’re working with about 35 companies in our pipeline who are looking to select markets. And we have the pandemic to thank for that.
Ryan Starks: (21:52) On behalf of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, we’re also grateful for the many wonderful partnerships that we have. World Trade Center Utah is one of those key partners in what we’ve learned as economic development. It’s a team sport that no one agency or entity or one person can affect an economy’s outcome, but it really takes all hands on deck.
Speaking of all hands on deck, you said you’re working with about 35 companies. Recently, you’ve pivoted a little bit to focus on all of Utah. Is that right?
Aaron Starks: (22:27) The great thing is we have 29 wonderful counties in Utah. So how do we take a small team based in Salt Lake to all of these counties? We just concluded the rural trip to Southern and Central Utah two weeks ago. I got to say it was an absolute blast. I was an East Ivins working with companies helping them take a carburetor apart in their garage while talking about global trade. I enjoyed it. And then, I was over at Ram company, that’s an aerospace and defense company, talking about some of their filtration technology and how they want to take it to the world, and how they need commercial buyers to do so. From there, we went up to Iron County. We’re working with Steven Lisonbee and his team, talking about how we bring students into the process of engaging companies.
There’s a lot of work to be done. There’s also a lot of potential to help us realize our vision of accelerating growth for Utah companies. We made investments in these services. The team has been restructured, and we’re rebranding the way we communicate our value proposition to the community. We’re also hiring a full-time rural director that will be based in rural Utah to work with rural companies exclusively. They’ll spend their time with their boots on the ground, pounding the pavement, knocking the doors, and helping them with their global strategies.
Ryan Starks: (23:53) That’s fascinating. A lot of people are saying that 2021 is the year of rural. We have Gov. Cox who’s very committed to rural Utah. We see great things happening with expansion from the World Trade Center Utah from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
Pulling out the crystal ball for just a moment, where do you see World Trade Center Utah in five years? And where do you see Utah exports? Do you think that we’re trending in a direction where we see exports continuing to rise?
Aaron Starks: (24:24) Absolutely. The data from the Brookings Institute told us three very important things. A state is more likely to hedge risk and be more resilient during times of economic uncertainty when its companies are engaged internationally. We know about one in four jobs in Utah is tied to a Utah export. That’s a pretty amazing statistic that I don’t think we’re aware of here in the state. We’re already global. We’re already doing wonderful things engaged in the global marketplace. And that’s incredible.
The third thing I would add is the economy is only diversifying more and more. Utah’s quickly becoming a global destination for business. We’re well-managed, we’re diversified. We have a lot of room for expansion and a very educated workforce. In five years, I see Utah not only adding several hundred thousand residents along the Wasatch Front, and hopefully into more rural areas, but as a place for global business. Here’s an amazing statistic: 20% of the nation’s international students are schooled in the state of Utah. People don’t realize that.
Ryan Starks: (25:46) And do you think that plays into our language capabilities? Why is that?
Aaron Starks: (25:50) We speak 129 languages. We’re the youngest state in the nation; 29 years old is the average age. We have a booming tech sector. Silicon Slopes is doing wonderful things. They are great partners. Our advanced manufacturing community’s doing great. Our BioHive medical sciences community is robust. Great things happening all around us. And this isn’t just me being a salesman. This is me speaking to the reality of our state five years from now. The growth we’re having now will continue to be a challenge and an opportunity for us. More companies will be located here and they will significantly diversify our population.
Ryan Starks: (26:30) Absolutely. When you talk about economic diversity, Utah’s number one of all 50 states. Good things are happening. I think a lot of that is globalization. A lot of that is the strength of our industry. Aaron, it’s been wonderful to catch up and kind of share your story with our listeners.
My last question is in light of the successes that we’re seeing as a state and the economic vitality we have; we also know that many of our industries are suffering because of the effects of COVID-19. In terms of international expansion, exports, and growth, is this something we recover from quickly? Have we been immune from some of the global chaos? What are your thoughts on that?
Aaron Starks: (27:19) I think contrary to popular belief. COVID-19 has helped international business. We’ve seen an uptick in businesses engaging with us. We’ve also seen our private grant funding increased significantly. For example, the small business administration appoints an administrator for each state to administer a STEP grant, a state trade export program. The purpose of this grant is to help offset costs for companies going global. Within three years’ time we’ve grown that allocation from the small business administration from about $350,000 to almost $650,000. The Small Business Administration is a great partner. They’ve done great things for the state of Utah. We’re happy to have that relationship.
You couple that with our private banks. For example, Zions Bank has generously contributed several hundred thousand dollars to a private grant to help companies go global. So we’re able to help companies hedge risk and protect themselves against some of the economic uncertainty around them by providing them with the capital they need to go and be successful abroad. And we’re seeing that the state Legislature and our stakeholders in Utah are also making strides to become more diversified economically on a global stage. And all of that will help in the long run with our ability to recover.
Ryan Starks: (28:46) Great thoughts, Aaron. I love the concept. We often hear ‘Team Utah’. And like you said, between the private sector stepping up to business service organizations like the World Trade Center Utah, and many others. It’s great to be part of ‘Team Utah’.
We’re out of time. My name is Ryan Starks, and I am the managing director of business services at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Today, my guest has been Aaron Starks, vice president of business services at the World Trade Center Utah. Aaron, how can we learn more about your services? What’s your website URL?
Aaron Starks: (29:22) Thank you. You can go to wtcutah.com and learn about our program, services, and grants we discussed today. And again, I would refer listeners to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development who’s equally invested with us in our endeavor to diversify the economy.
Ryan Starks: (29:39) Absolutely. Thank you, Aaron. It’s great to visit with you in this capacity. I look forward to dinner at your house on Sunday evening.
Aaron Starks: (29:46) See you there. Thank you.
Thanks for listening to the Business Elevated podcast, a production of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Listen to other episodes where you get your podcasts or at business.utah.gov.