The Sitdown: Laurel Delaney sees plenty of sparkle for Chicago exports

SHARE The Sitdown: Laurel Delaney sees plenty of sparkle for Chicago exports

Laurel Delaney has published a book about Chicago’s role in international exporting. | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

As told to Sandra Guy, Staff Reporter

The founder and owner of Chicago-based consulting firm couldn’t have asked for better timing. Laurel Delaney’s second book, which aims to be the definitive guide for entrepreneurs and small business owners to sell their goods overseas, is being published just as President Barack Obama normalizes relations with Cuba. And Chicago’s own Penny Pritzker, the U.S. commerce secretary, cheerleads for Obama’s National Export Initiative, NEI/NEXT, to double U.S. exports by the end of the year. Pritzker’s stump speech reminds audiences that exports created about 8 percent of the jobs in America in 2013, or 11.3 million U.S. jobs, and that those jobs pay 13 to 18 percent more than the average job because most of them are in manufacturing. U.S. exports reached a record $2.3 trillion in 2013. The numbers for 2014 come out in February. Delaney reels off similar numbers: Illinois boasts 20,000 to 23,000 of the nation’s 320,000 businesses that are exporting, but that’s a drop in the bucket. A conversation with anyone in the world can start online via the Internet, and now is the time to get going, she says, citing among examples former client Eli’s Cheesecake, which started a successful exporting venture in Japan. Delaney also publishes, ranked as a top resource worldwide, and


Laurel Delaney | Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

We are converting Women Entrepreneurs GROW Global into a nonprofit, 501(c)(3). We feel we can go to certain foundations, specifically in Chicago, like the Coleman Foundation and the Chicago Foundation for Women, to provide funding since it’s such a huge initiative to empower women business owners and entrepreneurs. The timing is really right.

The single greatest challenge is the inability to collect payment on a transaction. So a small business may have an export worth $25,000. The company’s owners think they can sell the customer that amount on an open account. They release the goods. Then the recipient doesn’t pay. A $25,000 hit on a small-business owner is a sizeable amount. That’s the single greatest reason small businesses can fail.

Doing too much too fast is another problem. They juggle too many jobs too fast.

It’s so important to have a global mindset. For myself, it’s the ability to deal with the unknown. That’s huge in the international marketplace. You need to feel comfortable and confident you can get to the other side. And it’s about being supersensitive to people — all races, creeds and walks of life, how they act, how they are dressed.

You must be able to appreciate and respect the way a person is, and make sure you’re constantly asking questions. It’s really just being comfortable in your own skin.

One example of a grave error that was hysterically funny: I was in a business meeting. We had just finished eating. We had our laptops and papers out, ready to discuss business. Someone took out his business card and used the card to clean his teeth.

Was that an American? It makes no difference. The point is the person did it. You have to go with the flow. You can’t laugh. You can’t point or say something about it.

I can remember growing up at 142nd and Halsted in Riverdale, in a very quiet, low-key area on the South Side of Chicago.

I would sit on the front steps and watch people get off of the Illinois Central train at the Ivanhoe stop. It was like cattle marching down the sidewalk. They all had attache cases. They were walking in the same rhythm and the same step. . . . They didn’t look happy or excited or enthusiastic about returning from work.

I just remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, I can’t imagine that I’m going to stay here. I have to make something of my life.”

My father, an electrical engineer at U.S. Steel in Gary, would leave the house at 5:30 or 6 a.m., commute to Gary, and come home religiously at 6 p.m., hang his tie on the doorknob and we’d all have dinner together.

He would talk about work. That’s where I got my work ethic. My mom was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. That’s where I get my discipline and organization. It shaped who I am that both of them constantly encouraged me to be whoever I wanted to be in life, to create and find my own destiny.

I like to say I’m one of those people who work really hard. I had a community college degree from Thornton Community College (now South Suburban College in South Holland) in business administration. I wanted to work in advertising. I went hard-charging to see an executive recruiter, and she said, “We have the opportunity to run and manage this little business,” which turned out to be under the umbrella of the then-major ad agency Tatham-Laird & Kudner.

The company was Sparkle Plenty Inc., which sold a crystal chandelier cleaner and had $250,000 in sales when I started.

We expanded into other chemical cleaning products and grew it to $6 million in sales with four of us in the entire operation. About 33 percent of the $6 million revenue base came from exporting. We eventually were selling products to 27 countries.

I went to Columbia College and got an undergrad degree in advertising. I would have been maybe in my early 20s. Then I earned an MBA at Lake Forest Graduate School of Management.

I have been running since 1977. I try to do a couple miles almost every day. On Saturdays, my husband has a radio show from 10 to 11 a.m., so he drops me off at Fullerton. I run to Randolph and take photographs.

On Saturdays only, I post some and build them into a bit of a story on the global small business blog. I’ll feature something local: a Chicago restaurant or the horses of honor, anything that catches my eye.

My husband, Bob Marovich, hosts “Gospel Memories” on WLUW, the radio station at Loyola University.

I love jazz and gospel.

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