Bridging the cultural gap
Martin McNeese advises businesses on international trade law
As a trade facilitator for the Italian fashion and perfume industries, Martin McNeese has honed his credentials deftly: He speaks a host of European languages like a native; he earned an undergraduate degree in finance from UGA; he studied fashion management and both Italian and American customs law; and he has a clear passion for Italy, including dressing in casual chic style.
His Anglo name, however, comes from his late father, who hailed from Vidalia, but whose career in the U.S. Air Force took him to a base in Aviano, Italy. Growing up in Europe, Martin (BBA ’88) learned seven languages, including Russian, and realized that he had an unusual cross-cultural perspective.
“Eventually I understood that I could be a two-way bridge between America and Europe, bringing people together in a positive manner,” he says during an interview in Vicenza, where he has lived for the past 11 years and where he is senior partner in his own firm.
“When I was 18 I came to Georgia, both to go to the university and to find out about my Dad’s roots,” he says. “I was scared when I first came to UGA, but people were welcoming and I adapted to a different culture. I lived in Russell and Reed (residence halls) and went to the International Student Coffee Hour.”
McNeese recalls some words of wisdom he received from a football player from France named Richard Tardits. Tardits, McNeese says, said simply, “to make the team as a walk-on, he had to run faster and hit harder than everyone else and to study the rules of the game. It certainly worked for him.”
A linebacker known as “Le Sac,” Tardits went on to play professional football and was an inspiration to McNeese.
Vicenza is the perfect place for his business since it is part of the fashion and textiles triangle that includes Milan and Florence, McNeese says. About three-fourths of his clients are Italian, and he helps them facilitate trade, he says.
“I often meet with clients at the conception of a new product,” he says. “I consult with them so there are no regulatory problems when it’s ready to export. I often work with lawyers to resolve problems before they become law cases. I understand the law and advise them to stay out of trouble.”
Part of McNeese’s job includes reading and understanding new and complex international trade legislation, including an 800-page document on new European regulations, which he recently finished.
“These days we’re working on creating products that are safe for consumers,” he says, “textiles that are made without using toxic substances and perfumes that don’t cause allergies.”
“I have to know the rules and system better than the locals do. My Italian customers like that I’m an American they can relate to. I’ve learned to adapt to their system and to listen.”
McNeese lives in Vicenza with his wife Jennifer and two teenage daughters. The northern Italy location is also close to his German mother’s hometown of Trier, where she now lives.
“Italians are very creative and flexible, and there is more economic freedom here since they changed their system in the 1980s,” McNeese says. “There are new opportunities here if you have ambition and drive. I really like working with creative people and being a bridge between cultures.”
—John W. English, a professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Georgia, is a frequent contributor to GM.