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Written by Blair Dowler | Photographed by Alex Wilson

Numbers don't lie.

Last year, more than 30,000 West Virginia jobs were supported by exports. That is $5 billion in goods exported from 1,098 West Virginia companies, 76 percent of which are small- to medium-sized businesses.

“Exporting should be an essential part of any business plan these days,” said Diego Gattesco, director, U.S. Export Assistance Center in Wheeling, West Virginia. “You can’t afford not to market your products and services to more than 95 percent of the world population or potential clients and three-fourths of the purchasing power that exists outside the U.S. borders.” 

The West Virginia University College of Business and Economics is committed to preparing students to enter the job market with real-world experience, while also enhancing the business climate across the state — including exporting. One way B&E accomplishes both of these is through the Marketing 440 Export Management course, whose students worked this spring with Homer Laughlin, Azimuth Incorporated, CT Harwood, Marble King, Schonstedt Instrument Company and the Trout House.

Where it all began

Approximately 15 years ago, Dr. Cyril Logar, a retired B&E professor of marketing and former dean of the College, and Don Gallion, former head and current chairman of the West Virginia District Export Council, first saw the need for this course. With his international expertise, Dr. William Riley, B&E professor of finance, also became involved. 

Each student team in the course works directly with a West Virginia-based company interested in venturing into the export business or expanding their existing export business, while also developing an export business plan for that company that addresses two countries. The company selects one country and the student consulting team selects the other. To date, more than 50 companies have worked with B&E’s export management students.

“There were a lot of companies that wanted to export their products that weren’t doing it, and we spent a lot of time trying to determine why. Other states like ours were exporting to a much larger extent than we were, so we thought, ‘Well, maybe they aren’t doing it, but because they don’t feel they have the expertise to do it or they’re afraid to do it,’” Riley said. “And you can overcome that through education and by talking to companies that have been successful at export.”

That is just one layer of the class. The next is giving these students the ability to put their skills and the principles they have learned into practical application. 

“Our goal is to provide as many real-life experience opportunities as possible for students in this College by the time they graduate. This kind of experiential learning is almost like a consulting course,” Riley said. “They work with these companies and help them develop a plan. So, the idea was, ‘How about pairing companies and students together?’”

Today, Riley and Gallion teach the course with Dr. Annie Cui, an associate professor of marketing. With her international and marketing expertise, Riley’s international and finance expertise, combined with Gallion’s experience with the Export Council, the three make an effective teaching trio. 

B&E Students at Homer Laughlin
Dr. Annie Cui (red shirt) with students from B&E's export management class at Homer Laughlin

“In my perspective, I think this is a course that’s perfect for everyone involved – students, faculty members, companies and also for WVU. The companies are really including us in their international initiatives,” Cui said. “Some of them are really small companies; they haven’t ever exported. This is a very good exercise for them to know what they’re getting into before they actually invest their money. And from the student’s perspective, this is 100 percent hands-on learning.”

The blending of ideas

This particular class has an interesting dynamic, made up of traditional MBA students, online-hybrid MBA students and top senior undergraduates. There is representation from seven different countries, providing great opportunity to learn about other cultures. 

“The key to doing business globally is just doing your homework and learning about the different cultures, so it’s always been an attractive course for international students,” Riley said.  

“You get views from different areas of the world. My teammates are from West Africa and China. I am from Virginia,” graduating management senior Joseph Graziano said. “They know more about their cultures than I ever could. The blending of ideas is great. I think it’s the best benefit. You get different opinions; the project comes together better.”

That diversity is also attractive for companies seeking to participate. 

“I’m pretty well-traveled. I’ve hit 45-plus countries — everywhere from Iraq to Haiti to a recent trip to Madrid, Spain, to Italy,” said Craig Hartzell, CEO of Azimuth Incorporated, a Morgantown company participating in the course. “I found the class to be extremely interesting because there were people from all over the world. Meeting people from other cultures and countries has been a life’s passion or obsession.” 

Craig Hartzell speaks to students
Craig Hartzell of Azimuth Incorporated speaks to export management students

A collaborative effort

As a class dedicated to experiential learning, it is structured much differently — no textbooks or exams. To accommodate all the different businesses, executives and the different types of students, the class meets for five weekend sessions over the 15-week semester. 

During the first class of the course, executives from the participating companies are invited to present an overview of their current business model, what their challenges are and what countries they might like to target. The students are then put into small teams and are assigned a business. Throughout the remainder of the course, the students and companies get a 360-degree view of what exporting is all about through tools such as guest speakers from the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Small Business Administration, financial institutions, law firms and travel agencies. 

From technology to dinnerware

Azimuth Incorporated is an engineering firm specialized in software and electronics engineering, rapid prototyping, manufacturing and more. This high-tech company is no stranger to exporting, having sent its Diver6 product all over the world. While it is on the brink of being exported to United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, it was the perfect time to get involved with the export management course. 

“I didn’t know the course would be a good a fit for Diver6 until I went there and met with Dr. Cui. I presented a short briefing on the system in the kickoff class. There’s nothing like it in the world, so, I was quite enthusiastic and the students were as well,” Hartzell said.


Diver6 is a tracking, monitoring, communications and display system that integrates with a diver’s equipment. It can track up to 20 divers at one time.

“Diver6 is first and foremost a safety system, where the dive master has visibility of the location, the water temperature and the depth of the diver like never before,” Hartzell said. “Every ship that comes into every port in the United States gets inspected by a port police dive team, customs and border protection or even FBI divers. Under the hull of a big ship, you don’t know where your divers are. The first sale of this system was to the Long Beach Port Police. They are using this
system to track those divers. That is just the basic function.”

The student team working with Azimuth was made up of graduating senior finance majors Rayan Rajab from Saudi Arabia and Ebrahim Alhosani from UAE. Their mission in the class was to develop a plan to export Diver6 into their home countries. 

“Craig mentioned to the class that he was targeting the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia and UAE. I think we could help Azimuth with the culture and the best approach to different markets and potential customers in our countries. The Internet will give you a lot of information, but it is not the same as from people inside those countries,” Rajab said.

Homer Laughlin China Company: Think of all the bright colors of the rainbow… sitting in your cabinets in the form of dinnerware. It’s most likely America’s favorite dinnerware, Fiesta, manufactured by the Homer Laughlin China Company in Newell, West Virginia. 

“We are right on the cusp of really breaking into exporting. I thought it would be great to get some market research from the students and have them dive into some of the markets we are considering to get ideas,” said Jonathan Yacoviello, specialty sales manager for Homer Laughlin. 

The Homer Laughlin team was made up of Graziano and dual MBA and M.S. finance graduate students Leila Sow from West Africa and Yilin Cai from China. With a few trade trips to Costa Rica and Mexico under the dinnerware company’s belt, the student export managers believed Brazil and China would be welcoming markets. 

Homer Laughlin China Gallery

“We see China as a major competitor because even if the companies are not based in China, a lot of the production is done in China and other Asian countries,” said Katie Bricker, food service and general marketing manager. “It makes sense, and I am glad they mentioned it because I hear all the time about the high regard in which the Chinese hold American products. Also, I know the middle class there is really growing and they are very interested in luxury goods.”

Previously, Homer Laughlin had been a bit adverse to exporting, which Graziano said was a challenge as the student team developed its plan. And though the company is rooted in tradition and heritage, the Homer Laughlin marketing and sales crew said the company knows it must evolve. That is where the students really helped.

“Technology is changing. Times are changing. The way we go to market, the way we sell, the way people buy – everything is changing,” Yacoviello said. “So, hearing some of the ideas they had was eye-opening for us. We are in an age now where you have to adapt or get left behind. We have been in this holding pattern as far as diving into exporting for a long time now and it’s a no-brainer for us because all of our competition exports.” 

A win-win-win

Students are walking away with real-world experience for their resumes while also having a hand in helping to grow businesses, which in turn boosts West Virginia’s economy and WVU’s and B&E’s outreach missions. Cui calls this class a win-win-win.

Beyond work experience, students have gained valuable skills to take into the next steps of the lives. 

“Each country has different export tariffs and all kinds of bureaucratic hoops you have to go through,” Graziano said. “Laws and processes – I think that’s the biggest take-away from the export class.”

For Rajab, he wants to take his new knowledge of exporting back to Saudi Arabia to help diversify his native country’s economy. “Around 90 percent of the products in Saudi Arabia are imported, so there is not much focus on exporting. Even the oil we consume is imported. We export crude oil, but we import gas, kerosene, etc.,” he said. “I want to learn to export more, and that’s why I took the class. My goal is to encourage Saudi Arabia to export more in the future.”

By encouraging businesses to step outside their comfort zones and take on the global marketplace, these students are helping West Virginia more than they realize. 

“The math is simple – exports equal growth,” Gattesco said. “Exports will increase your demand and sales. That growth will bring jobs to your company and to West Virginia.”

New horizons

Gattesco and Riley agreed that for companies interested in growing through exports, West Virginia businesses are seeing real success from working with the B&E program.  

“A company in Wellsburg, West Virginia, that participated in the course and learned about a U.S. Department of Commerce trade mission to Central America decided to take part in it,” he said. “They traveled this past March to Costa Rica and Nicaragua and met with potential business partners. As a result, they recently entered into a very lucrative contract to sell their products in Nicaragua.”