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Small firms among those checking ties in Japan

Many Southern California companies are trying to determine whether associates overseas are safe and to gauge the disaster's effects on their operations.

March 21, 2011|By Cyndia Zwahlen
  • Tom Helleberg, left, international sales director for shoe firm Macbeth, said the company shipped its first batch of shoes to Japan just a few weeks ago. At right is Chief Executive Jon Humphrey.
Tom Helleberg, left, international sales director for shoe firm Macbeth,… (Christina House, For the…)

It's not just major corporations in the U.S. that have been dealing with ramifications of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan.

Many small Southern California companies also were scrambling last week to find out whether business associates and customers in Japan were safe, and trying to determine the short- and long-term effects on their operations.

"We are carefully gauging the situation every hour," said Roy Liao, project director at SuperValue Tours Inc., a leading provider of English-language tours to Japan. The South El Monte company, which has 30 employees, is giving refunds for several upcoming tours that had been on its schedule.

"As of right now, we have proactively canceled departures" through March 31, Liao said.

SuperValue had about 200 customers on 10 tours in Japan when the magnitude 9 earthquake struck. None of the travelers were near the epicenter of the quake or in cities hit by the tsunami, he said.

Only about 15% of the customers requested early flights home, he said, and all were back in the U.S. as of Friday.

"We probably anticipate some effects [to the business] in the short or medium term," Liao said, "but in the long term, whether they will be really traumatic or not is hard to tell just yet."

Japan is also a major market for California companies, including UVP, a small Upland manufacturer of ultraviolet imaging products for science labs. International sales helped UVP survive the recession, and the company now does about 50% of its business outside North America.

The company's chief executive, Leighton Smith, said he is also apprehensive about imports coming from Japan — he gets parts from that country for his products. "I've been on the phone today with one of our suppliers," he said, "trying to determine if one of the eight plants Sony has shut down … makes the chips we use in our cameras."

A number of major Japanese companies have shuttered plants, at least temporarily.

"Business has pretty much come to a halt there," said Jane Chung, a San Francisco-based spokeswoman for the Japan External Trade Organization, which helps companies do business in that country.

Some local small businesses had only recently expanded into Japan. MarketShare, which provides media analytics technology and services, has had clients in the Asian nation for some time but opened an office in Tokyo not long ago..

With Japan being the world's third-largest economy, "it is a market you cannot ignore," said Jean-Philippe Durrios, a vice president of the West Los Angeles firm.

"We are encouraging our staff to work from home until after the aftershocks have passed and also the transportation resumes normal operation," he said.

Macbeth Inc., a footwear company co-owned by musician Tom DeLonge — a founding member of the popular band Blink-182 — shipped its first batch of shoes to Japan just a few weeks ago, said Tom Helleberg, the Carlsbad company's international sales director.

"As a business just starting to supply this market, this is of course unfortunate timing, but our immediate thoughts are only focused on the terrible loss and impact to the people" there, Helleberg said.

Until late last week, Helleberg was planning to go to Japan at the end of this month to meet his distributor in Tokyo. But with conditions in flux, he was not sure this was the right time.

"I spoke with our partner again," DeLonge said, "and as time progresses the day-to-day business is definitely getting impacted."

smallbiz@latimes.com

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