Global warnings Featured

9:59am EDT July 22, 2002

Wat’s the most important skill needed by a lawyer with a practice in international business?

“You have to know how to avoid jet lag,” quips Dennis Unkovic.

Unkovic has no doubt endured frequent assaults on his circadian rhythms, although his manner, cheerful and chipper, perhaps because he lifts weights to stay in shape, belies any disruption of his sleep schedule.

He is kidding about jet lag, but he should know. Unkovic, a name partner in Pittsburgh law firm Meyer, Unkovic & Scott, traveled to Europe and Asia eight times last year, almost once every six weeks. Despite a sustained downturn in the world economy that he and other observers don’t expect to end any time soon, Unkovic, who has worked in 50 countries, suspects he will be just as mobile this year as he was in 1998.

The reasons? Even a depressed economy in Asia, where two-thirds of the world’s population resides, offers a huge market. With contracted product development cycles, he says, U.S. companies can’t hesitate when it comes to entering the international market. And, he adds, every market, good or bad, offers opportunities for the right products or services.

Unkovic got into international law early in his career. After serving as lawyer for former U.S. Sen. Hugh Scott, the powerful Republican from Pennsylvania, during the Watergate era, he looked for a specialty in which there weren’t a lot of lawyers. International law was one of those, and Unkovic landed work with a large French company as entree to the field. Since then, he’s written four books and numerous articles on international business while carving out a healthy practice in international law.

“It’s a very hard field to get into because people want to know you’ve been there,” Unkovic says. “Nobody wants to send you for the first time.”

He’s been successful, at least in part, perhaps, because he prepares carefully before working in a new country. He reads a political history that covers the past 50 or 100 years, learns as much as he can about the economy and briefs himself on the country’s business practices.

But much of his knowledge, such as the fact that Malaysians don’t much care for Americans, comes through long, hard-earned experience.

“A lot of what I know isn’t in books,” he says.

Unkovic’s interest in the countries where he does work for clients manifests itself in the collection of artifacts he’s accumulated in his jaunts abroad. Some are intrinsically valuable, others simply items that caught his fancy in a market or basement. Headhunters’ swords and ornate Japanese mirrors adorn his office walls. Figurines carved from human bones and ancient rifles all carry stories about their history or acquisition, which he’s happy to share with visitors to his Oliver Building office.

But his greatest insights tend to come from his ongoing observations of countries in the Far East, particularly those where his clients venture in search of new markets and opportunities. In many respects, Unkovic becomes their guide in both good times and bad.

The current economic situation in the Far East, he says, would fit into the bad category. Unkovic sees the economic downturn there as a real threat to U.S. businesses, even though the effects haven’t yet become apparent.

“The effects are increasingly going to hurt the small- and medium-sized companies,” Unkovic warns.

The recent declines in reported earnings of large companies since Asian countries began their slowdowns in mid-1997 are a sign that the slide is affecting the U.S. economy, as are the anti-dumping actions taken by American steel makers and layoffs at aircraft manufacturers. Those companies, says Unkovic, are customers to hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of small businesses that provide products or services to them. As foreign business dries up for large business, Unkovic says, smaller companies are likely to feel that pinch as well.

“A lot of the work that small- to medium-sized companies do in relation to Asia is in connection with a larger project,” Unkovic says.

The good news is that Pittsburgh’s economy is less dependent on the Far East than in earlier times.

Pennsylvania’s wood products industry, while not the first to come to mind as one of the state’s most prominent, nonetheless offers an illustration of how a burgeoning domestic economy may serve to mask troubles in markets abroad.

The lumber industry has observed a considerable drop in demand from Pacific Rim countries, especially Japan and Korea, says Rich Conti, executive director of the executive committee of the American Hardwood Export Council and president of Matson Wood Products Co. in Brookville. While the decline in Asian demand has been noticeable, Conti says, the effect on the industry has been softened because of increased demand in the United States and parts of Europe.

“The net effect is not so significant,” says Conti.

But if, as Unkovic suggests, the domestic economy slows, the slumps overseas could become more noticeable. He suggests that U.S. companies should be looking at opportunities in Asia and elsewhere, because of the sheer size of those markets, to carry them through should a domestic slump develop.

Says Unkovic about the opportunities abroad amid stagnant economies: “Even if they’re flat, there’s an enormous amount of potential demand there if you have the right product.”