Small U.S. Businesses Need to Consider Their Global Exposures

Last week I attended a seminar here in Atlanta designed for small businesses to improve their sales. The attendees were a wide range of business types from heavy equipment sales to document security. I had the pleasure to talk with some of these business owners who were quick to dismiss their ‘global’ exposures because they are not Coca-Cola, UPS or some other multi-national firm – they are ‘Main Street USA’. To their credit, they were willing to spend 3 minutes with me and learn that many of them do have global exposures, and they have no plans for this risk, yet.

 

What I reminded them of, in a globalized economy all linked by overnight delivery, advanced telecommunications and the internet, even today’s small companies increasingly do business with foreign suppliers and customers. For these businesses, conducting business outside of the U.S. has never been easier, but doing so leads to a wide array of risk management and insurance issues.

 

Like them, it is obvious to most people that companies with foreign subsidiaries, branches or joint ventures need to be aware of their exposure to loss in the various countries in which they do business. They need to be certain that their insurance programs are appropriate to the exposures and in compliance with local regulations. Failure to do so may leave a company without insurance coverage – which may not become apparent until after a loss has occurred – and potentially subject to fines and penalties.

 

Managing a multinational insurance program can be enormously complicated. Some countries require policies to be purchased locally, meaning that the buyer needs access to distant insurance markets and must be able to manage language issues, especially since the policies are often issued in the local language. One solution is to delegate local insurance purchases to local employees, but this can lead to other issues concerning the quality and consistency of coverages. These ‘multi-national’ companies oftentimes simplify the insurance process by working with brokers experienced in international insurance programs and multinational insurers that can provide substantially one-stop service, even when local insurance policies are required.

 

However, a point I made with these small business owners is that most, if not all of them, have a company website, and there is where they are potentially exposed to liability from foreign sources. Even if they do little or no business in a foreign country, since the Internet is borderless, the company could potentially run afoul of various libel, intellectual property infringement and privacy laws. Companies that sell products to foreign buyers have even more opportunities to incur liability, such as product liability lawsuits and enforcement of consumer protection laws. Companies with physical locations outside the U.S. face the full range of property and liability exposures in each country in which they have facilities and people.

 

Understanding the exposures presented by each country in which a company operates can be daunting. Liability exposures are especially challenging since laws and legal systems vary widely.

 

Even if not required by law, local policies may be a good idea in many cases. Local policies are more likely to be tailored to local laws and practices, and ready access to local claims personnel may be essential following a loss. Additionally, buying local policies may avoid certain complex tax issues associated with multinational policies.

 

Globalization is a business and economic reality, but insurance still is regulated locally. A well-structured insurance program with an insurance broker that understands these exposures is critical. Businesses should expect their broker to choose an insurance company that can minimize the friction that can be caused by the myriad of insurance regulation around the world, and allow management of the businesses to focus on growth and profitability without liability and insurance issues being an impediment.

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