March 18, 2019
SHOP TALK

Busenburg trailblazed Massachusetts customs

Photo | Brad Kane
Karen Busenburg

Karen Busenburg, customers broker & founder, Karen A. Busenburg Customs Broker, Worcester

Founded: Feb 1, 1973

Employees: 3

Age: 70

Birthplace: Worcester

Residence: Marstons Mills

Education: Bachelor of arts in education and science, Emmanuel College in Boston

Forty-seven years ago, Karen Busenburg became the first licensed female customs broker in Massachusetts, founding her own brokerage house. In March, her firm merged with Euro-American Worldwide Logistics in Worcester, where she serves as treasurer and co-owner.

Why did you become a customs broker?

I was working for Euro-American, and any time our customers had shipments, we hired a broker out of Boston. We decided I should become a customs broker.

How difficult was it?

It's pretty hard. Now they do have classes you can take, but they didn't then. The test is a three-hour exam. I bought the 2,000-page book with the rules and regulations of customs, read it, outlined it and read it again. It took me about a year. I took the test the first Tuesday in October 1972. At the time, less than 1 percent of people who took it in the country passed. I got nearly a perfect score.

What exactly does a customs broker do?

We are an agent for the importer, to facilitate clearing for U.S. Customs & Border Protection and all the other federal agencies. We look through the thousands of pages of tariffs and determine what the proper tariff classification is. We then write up the customs entry.

Do you feel like a trailblazer?

At the time I did. It is daunting going into a meeting with six male customs officers, 42 male customs brokers and you. I stood out. Still, more than 90 percent of customs officers were wonderful.

What about the other 10 percent?

When I went to get my license from the district director in Boston – usually there is a big to-do when someone gets their customs license – he was too busy. One of his associates just handed me my customs license. The monitor for the test, who worked at the customs house in Boston, was furious. He said, "They usually do a big thing. They should have done something great for you being the first woman." But I don't think they liked women breaking into the profession. I could be wrong, but I don't think so.

Certainly doesn't seem like it.

I was actually told by one customs receiver officer in Boston, "A woman's place is in the home." He was sending these late fines and notices on my customs entries that weren't even late. I had to go to his supervisor, and he was demoted.

Another time – back when you had to physically bring in all the documents – I sent everything by courier into the pier in Boston. One of the customs officers there called me to say there was a problem with one of my entries and I had to come in. So, I drove all the way to Boston, waited in line with the truckers and other men, and went in there. I said, "I'm Karen Busenburg. I'm here to see what is wrong with my entries." There were three customs officers behind the desk, and they laughed, saying, "There's nothing wrong with your entries. We just wanted to see what the girl broker looked like."

The supervisor came over, handed me my signed-off entries and said, "I apologize. This will never happen again."

I hope things have improved.

As more women started getting their license in the late 1970s, it did. Yet, there were all these little things. When I was studying for the brokers license, one of the rules was "Any individual other than a married woman may act as surety on a customs bond." That was kept in the regulations for another 10 years.

It is better now. I don't know for sure, but I believe about one-third of customs brokers now are women. There are more women customs officers and more women customs import specialists.

Why now merge with Euro-American?

Because I'm 70, and we needed an exit strategy. Every customs brokerage house needs to have a responsible broker, the one who the buck stops here. That has been me, and now it is going to be Carol Shelsy, who I have worked with for years.

So, are you retiring?

I'm probably going to work part-time and take more vacations.

We just went to Florida. We're planning for 2020; we are going to Oberammergau, Germany for the passion plays and taking a Viking cruise down the Danube River. It goes from Germany to Austria, and we end up in Budapest.

They only do the passion plays every 10 years in Oberammergau. It started in like the 1600s when a plague was going through Europe. The people of Oberammergau promised if their town was spared, they would do a passion play every 10 years. All the men in town don't shave starting in January for the year, and everyone in town has a role in the plays.

I'm really excited to see it.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by Brad Kane, WBJ editor.

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