Small Business Issues

By Deborah Gage  |  Posted 2003-09-10 Print this article Print

By April 2002, when Bonner formally announced C-TPAT at a ceremony in Detroit, Customs had the backing of seven big shippers and recipients of goods—Target, Sara Lee, General Motors, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, Motorola and BP America. But small businesses were not on stage. OBrien sees that as a problem.

Of the 450,000 companies that import goods into the U.S. each year, the top 1,000 bring in 65% to 70% of the goods, OBrien says. But its the other 30% of goods that especially worries Customs, because those are the shippers most likely to have lax practices. Since a box of T-shirts is worth so much less than a box of high-quality computer parts, why bother to do much to protect it?

As an agent, OBrien pushed Customs to get tough on businesses that cheated on paying duties, and he expects the agency will also be tough on businesses that fudge compliance with C-TPAT. But while companies the size of Hewlett-Packard have entire departments for dealing with Customs and for ensuring their cargo isnt stolen or damaged in transit, small businesses tend to have nothing.

"Theyre the ones who are going to get caught," says OBrien, who retired on Aug. 9. "When you import 150 containers a year from Sydney, Australia, and an agent knocks on your door and asks what have you done to verify the security of your supply chain, most importers will say I called them and they said everything is fine. And I dont think the government is going to be happy with that."

OBrien feels so strongly about the governments commitment to C-TPAT, he is recruiting other former agents to start a company—Global Trade Security Consulting—to steer small businesses into compliance. The company will help businesses assess the security of their cargo from the warehouse to the truck companys freight consolidation yard to the shipping yard. They will also evaluate the integrity of the employees at these points—are they reliable, trustworthy and loyal? "I know its a great argument in the U.S., but in a lot of these countries theres no central register to check and find out who people are and what they have done," OBrien says.

Customs says more than 3,300 businesses have signed up for the partnership program, but no more than a third of them are certified. Unisys consultant Grant McKinstry says thats because companies want to appear patriotic without actually having to comply. "There is a fair amount of work involved in filling out these assessments, and theres not a clear mandatory requirement."

Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.


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