Comerica Inc. is not in the business of shipping whales, but if that's what one of its customers wants, that's what the Detroit-based bank will do.

Transporting large seafaring mammals might seem an odd line of business for a financial institution, and it's certainly unusual for Comerica. But as the only American bank to run an international freight forwarding and customs brokerage business, Comerica goes the extra mile. The whale, which was being shipped for breeding purposes from an Ontario-based aquarium to Sea World in Orlando, arrived in good condition.

Meanwhile, Comerica's international business, covering everything from freight forwarding to trade finance and cash management, is also doing fine. In fact, executives say, assets and revenues will grow some 20% this year and probably do just as well in 1995.

"We happen to be in a part of the Midwest that's very active in international trade," says Robert Herdoiza, executive vice president in charge of global banking. "We have a lot of potential to continue to grow our business in those markets."

What makes Comerica's push into international operations unusual is that it began as many U.S. banks were getting out of trade finance and pulling back from lending overseas.

"We never left Latin America and were one of the few (U.S.) banks that stayed the course through the LDC debt crisis," says Mr. Herdoiza.

The bank's involvement in international operations started 30 years ago. It grew significantly when Comerica merged with Manufacturers Bank, another Detroit-based institution, in 1992.

The international business, revolving mainly around trade finance, picked up steam in the 1980s as Comerica expanded into Texas, Illinois, and California, states that are home to many export-oriented companies.

As markets began to internationalize, foreign companies moved into the United States and U.S. companies began operating overseas. Comerica followed its customers, adding on to existing businesses in trade finance, project finance, cash management, and foreign exchange.

"They've got a legacy from the automotive companies expanding overseas," says Joseph C. Duwan, a bank analyst who tracks Comerica at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. "They are an example of how to follow your customers and then become entrepreneurial in providing services to that customer base."

Lately, executives say, Comerica's international business has been given an added boost with Michigan moving up to become the nation's third largest exporting state, after California and Texas. Exports from Michigan over the first eight months of this year reached $22.5 billion, up 48% from $15.2 billion during the comparable 1993 period, according to Department of Commerce data.

"The competitiveness of Michigan-based companies has dramatically improved over the last few years, and created opportunities on the international side for them," Mr. Duwan observes.

While it built up banking relationships with U.S. and foreign multinationals, Comerica moved into Latin America, developing relationships with export-oriented local companies. These customers could count on a steady stream of foreign currency earnings to repay loans from Comerica.

"Our strategy was to identify companies that were export-oriented and which would not be hurt by devaluations in the event of currency depreciations," Mr. Herdoiza explains.

Today, Comerica has roughly $1.7 billion in internationally related loans. Three-quarters of that amount is lent to foreign-domiciled borrowers, Mr. Herdoiza says, and the majority of those foreign entities are located in Mexico and Brazil.

Many of the loans are backed by guarantees, either from the United States Export Import Bank or the Commodities Credit Corp. Or, the loans get some kind of indirect guarantee, such as those that are part of loan syndications arranged by the Washington-based International Finance Corp.

Internationally related loans amount to only 6% of Comerica's $33 billion of assets. But executives say the loans generate other business, such as foreign exchange or cash management, which brings in even more in revenues.

Mr. Herdoiza is particularly proud of Comerica's record to date. In Mexico, for example, he reports that the bank has done "several billion dollars" worth of business over the last 30 years with nearly 100 Mexican companies without running into any significant loan losses. In total, Comerica has had to write off less than $5.5 million in loans to Mexican borrowers, he adds.

Although Comerica generally prefers to work with correspondent banks outside the United States, growing business with Mexico is prompting the bank to consider going a step further by opening a Mexican subsidiary. Executives say the bank has yet to make a final decision on this matter but it is seriously considering applying to the Mexican finance ministry for a banking license early next year.

"Opening branches is an expensive exercise if you don't have enough customers but there is clearly a point at which you have enough of a critical mass of customers to justify that expense," Mr. Herdoiza says.

Although much of Comerica's international business is linked to automotive companies, other Midwest-based manufacturers, and foreign companies which have set up shop in the United States, the bank took an unusual step in 1986 when it acquired John V. Carr & Son Inc., one of the nation's top freight forwarding and customs brokerage companies.

Freight forwarding, customs brokerage, customs refunds, and shipping insurance have become profitable activities in their own right. Comerica officials decline to break out specific figures either for their international operations or for Carr, but say the freight forwarder will handle more than one million transactions this year.

The number of transactions has been growing at around 5% annually.

As the only bank running an operation of this sort, Comerica is able to offer exporters and importers everything from pre-export financing to shipping and customs clearance.

Through this business, Comerica gains an edge on trade information and potential business opportunities.

It also means Comerica can add on more fee-generating services. The bank, for example, recently launched its own automated clearing house system for customs payments.

This system tracks and pays customs duties on behalf of a particular account, allowing firms to avoid time-consuming and potentially costly delays in making payments.

Comerica has also set up a consulting group, which advises shippers on all the complexities of customs law and how best to expedite shipment.

Observers give Comerica high marks for the business it has developed so far and its efforts to promote U.S. trade.

"They have been active participants in trade finance and international trade generally," says Mary Condeelis, executive director of the Washington-based Bankers Association for Foreign Trade.

Still, some question how much further the bank can extend its international operations and how successful some of its efforts have been.

They note that Comerica's plans to develop its freight forwarding business have so far failed to materialize.

"They went on a huge expansion program with Carr trying to have operations in every major port of call but the business never came in," says Jeffrey B. Naschek, a bank analyst with Salomon Brothers Inc.

Mr. Naschek notes that Carr is barely breaking even on $40 million in revenues and much of its business remains oriented toward trade with Canada.

Even if Comerica believes it can eventually earn a 15% return on revenues by reducing infrastructure and implementing new technology, "it's a business that's not looking at huge margins," he adds.

Says another analyst: "Their main focus is on small and middle market companies." Even if Comerica does have some large multinational companies among its customers, he notes, the dominant focus on small and midsize companies will likely set limits on the extent to which the bank can grow its international activities.

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