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Friday, 30 August 2013


It’s funny how one memory can spark a multitude of others. I was looking back at a previous Tale and also at my writings from a ten day trip to India back in 1996 (long before it was regarded as a BRIC!) when the cranial sluice gates opened. So I thought I would share some of the memories that came from that.

Bombay Airport was hilarious. It was after 1am when my flight touched down, warm, humid, and well…crowded! When you travel a lot you tend to do so in automatic much of the time. You know your passport will be checked multiple times, your hand luggage scanned and sometimes inspected, and that sometimes there will be gate changes (and in one case a flight crew that failed to show up!) and surly officials. So my first memory as I came through that process was of noise, and of hundreds of taxi drivers clamouring for your business.

Then I was whisked to one side by a Sikh in a security uniform and a big stick, who directed me to a taxi booth. He politely but firmly explained this as being a measure to ensure that foreign visitors were transported to their hotels by reputable taxi firms and that may have been true, but there was also a suspicion that he may have been on commission. And while I found all this rather fun, the Swedish guy I had left the plane with was ashen faced, and clearly well out of his comfort zone. We were beckoned to our respective taxis, with one man claiming temporary ownership of our luggage in order to earn a tip, and another arguing furiously with a third who seemed to think that I was his fare too! So I let them slug it out while the poor Swedish guy was ushered towards another cab, looking like he thought he might be being taken hostage.

The slugging carried on as I took my place in the rear of the Ambassador cab, a little hunched with my head resting against the roof and my legs stretched across both footwells, and eventually the third man lost his battle and my driver calmly took the wheel and asked for my destination. “The Connaught Hotel please” I replied, and horn beeping, we meandered through the hordes of people and other traffic into the comparative silence of the exit road.

What followed next is an image that has never left me, for two reasons: the image itself; and the fact that you cannot always entirely trust your first impressions. The exit road was lined with poorly crafted shelters and tents, and silhouetted in front of a fire was a lady sat in rags, with her white teeth and eyes standing out against the darkness. It reminded me vividly of a similar image from Michael Buerk’s BBC report from Qorum in Ethiopia as the famine of the mid-1980’s struck so hard. And there it seemed to appear again right before my eyes. 

Poverty is a dreadful scourge, and as we drove on to my hotel I could not help feeling shocked at what I had seen. Fast-forwarding to my return to the Airport in daylight a few days later, those same shelters and tents had transformed into shops and market stalls, where traders eeked out a living. There is no doubting the poverty that remained, but it was somehow reassuring to see that those same shelters had a commercial purpose as well as being where their owners ate, drank, and slept. As we left the airport behind that night the driver asked if I minded if he picked up a friend on the way to my hotel. Accepting that the Swedish man might have considered this a murderous kidnap plot I said that would be fine, but confess to a moment of relief when, after about ten minutes in the pitch dark in front of what looked like a disused factory, the friend appeared all smiley faced to enable us to continue our journey.

I arrived at the doors of the Connaught Hotel to find a doorman in full traditional dress, complete with Alibaba shoes and handlebar moustache, beckoning me in his direction. After leaving yet another tip for yet another chap who wanted to carry my luggage, and a tip for the taxi driver, the doorman ushered me towards reception, and duly received a tip too. The check in procedure was short and sweet, and I was soon in my room. Having seemingly scattered tips around like confetti since I left the plane, I thought I’d better check on my rupees situation, and found that I had given away in tips the grand British Pounds Sterling equivalent of 12 pence. That will have made me popular!

I had a short walk around the hotel and went for a drink in one of the bars adjacent to which there was an Indian wedding in full swing, and to my astonishment I was invited in to join the party. Well it would have been churlish not to. The food was a fabulous mix of fresh fruit and vegetables, and a whole menu of the most fantastically colourful, traditional hot and cold dishes, and while the party went on until morning I took my leave after an hour or so. That such opulence and wealth should live side by side with extremes of poverty was a shock to the system, but one that I became accustomed to, though never hardened to, as I travelled around the country. 

Friday, 23 August 2013


At the risk of giving a second mention in these Tales to the English Pub in Charlotte, North Carolina, thus inviting the impression that it became a regular haunt during my travels there, this Tale starts with a much needed beer after a very long day of training sessions and customer meetings. One of the things I did regularly for our machinery distributors was to keep them up to date with the latest features and innovations on our complex range of high performance woodturning machinery, and that’s how we spent our afternoon after an early morning driving into the Blue Ridge Mountains to visit a massive saw mill complex.

The bar was relatively empty, and quiet. So we spent a while reviewing our day and talking through what had to be done the next day. As we prepared to leave, a BBC camera crew came in, straight off their flight and with all their gear. So we got talking, and it transpired that they were there to film a celebrity cricket match two days later, on the Saturday. And as another Englishman abroad, I was given two tickets to join in the fun. The crew only stayed for one beer, but in that short time I learned that celebrities such as Tim Rice and Faroukh Engineer would be playing a big part in the day.

What I found astonishing was that the very English game of cricket should show up in the middle of a country that knows precious little about it, in a bar where my co-drinkers had largely never heard of the game! By the time the crew took their leave, the bar had filled up with people dropping in for a beer or two on their way home from work, many of whom were curious about this charity event. As I was the only Englishman in an English pub run by a Scotsman called Iain, I suddenly became the focus of their curiosity, and those who planned to attend the match began to quiz me about this very English sport.
I love the sound of cork against willow as the English game is played out on village greens across the land, spectating from the safety of a nearby country pub, but I’m afraid that is as close as I have ever really been to the game of cricket. It was the enforced summer sport at school, but I was either sent out to field in the boundaries where nothing ever happened, or I found a way of skiving off for the afternoon! I also find that watching test cricket can be therapeutic, although again my viewing has only ever been from a distance, and mainly through a television screen.

However, in the eyes of just about everyone in the bar that evening, I was English therefore I would know everything about our national game. So I got asked. The first question was from a rather bombastic, opinionated man in a bright coloured checked shirt and a baseball cap, which was simply “So how long does a game of cricket last?” My reply “it depends, but anything up to five days” was greeted with booming derision “Jeez, five days? You could die out there!” Not wishing to disappoint further, and with my tongue loosening somewhat as more beer seemed to arrive gratis on the bar in front of me, I decided the only thing to do was to blag it, and just tell them whatever came into my head.

And so it went on, with cricketing terms like ‘googly’ and ‘bouncer’ being given definitions that had never before seen the light of day. By the time I left the bar, my audience had grown confident with their new found knowledge, and had started to really look forward to the rather eccentric spectacle that was about to take place in their city. And eccentric it was! Barrels of Bass Charrington beer had been shipped across from Blighty especially for the event, where it was served at the traditional temperature and described variously as ‘dish water’ and ‘something you would normally find for free in a swamp’. For my part, I became a target for all those one-night drinking buddies whose heads I had filled with erroneous cricketing definitions in the English Pub. My contribution to their lives was to have introduced irony and English humour which, after a few hairy moments, seemed to enhance their experience!

The day went off incredibly well: the sun was shining all day; the marquees were filled with people dressed in blazers and boaters, getting into the English spirit; and there were times in the late afternoon when it really felt and sounded like a corner of England. You don’t forget days like that.

Friday, 16 August 2013

TALES FROM THE ROAD 37 – International Trade & Changing Technology

Where would we be without them? The Internet, mobile phones, laptops, Skype…the list is endless.

When I was selling machinery into the USA from 1992, I was provided with a company AT&T card, whose 16 digit number I had to punch into a payphone before then punching in a further 14 digits for the international telephone number. At that time, I was still using Telex for some markets, and fax machines were really coming into their own. Now I never fax. All this started me thinking, so here’s a chronology of how new technologies have changed the way I work. I’m sure at least some of it will sound familiar!

1992: The alternative to the AT&T card was the grossly expensive hotel landline. Most of my calls back to the UK were on a reverse charge basis. At that time there were still paper messages too – the message slipped under the door of your hotel room or there to collect from reception. There is still something nice about receiving a handwritten note.

1994: I had my first car phone installed, but was warned that it was only for domestic outgoing calls. The company Chairman was the one exception to this rule which meant that he could service his overseas accounts in South East Asia more easily than I could service mine in North America, West and Southern Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. Unfair! At the time I was working with our designers and a South African customer to design a door production line by fax, and the detail of our respective sketches and drawings needed regular explanation. This was also the age of the combined communication device, providing phone, fax, copier and scanner in the same unit.

1995: In spite of continuing painfully slow dial up connections, the Internet became a more regular feature of my working life, when I realised its potential as a research tool. CDs replaced floppy disks for storing data and computer backing up. I could now send technical and marketing files on CD to my USA customers, so that they could print our promotional leaflets locally. 

1997: My first ever mobile phone. I had started my job as Export Sales Manager for a carpet tile company, where they were the norm, and it made me realise I had been working back in the Ark for too long! It was also my first exposure to mass email. This more forward thinking company had a web presence too and was already planning further versions of its website. I was in my office one day shortly after starting there, when I was bombarded with a barrage of simultaneous communication from a number of different devices: several emails came through as a fax began to transmit, and I had calls on my mobile phone and landline as one of my colleagues dropped in for a chat. Welcome to the Internet age!  

1999: The installation of my first genuine hands-free phone was invaluable for those long car journeys around Europe, and I finally got the point of texting! My company laptop was always with me, and I was able to write up visit reports on planes, trains and automobiles without having to send them to the typing pool. Empowering salespeople to tap out their own reports caused the loss of secretarial jobs.

2004: My first introduction Skype was one of those ‘why on earth haven’t I used this before?’ moments. It has saved a huge amount in communications cost over the years, and my first regular free calls were to Brazil, India, and the USA. Skype didn’t replace more conventional communication methods, but it has added an extra dimension for international business. 

2005: Skype video demonstrated how technology can be used to retain and strengthen international customer relationships. Video can never replace a face to face meeting but even with the limitations of 2-D, it adds value in that you can see facial expressions, distractions and some body language during a call. I also learned the real value of Skype chat in confirming key points of a conversation, and in copying & pasting chat into Word documents for later reference.

2006: The year I was finally persuaded by friends to use social media! I did not see then what I now realise about the importance of social media in international communication. I was regularly using Linkedin by this time, but the Twitter light bulb took a few more years to turn itself on. It was also the year where I realised the implications of phone cameras for international exhibitors

2008: I extended the use of Skype in arranging a 2+ hour conference call with 18 associates from 12 different countries. Barring the occasional signal failure, causing the loss of connection for one of the delegates half way through, it was a highly cost-effective exchange of views and action points.

2010: Although I think that multi-user video conferencing still has a way to go, mainly due to inconsistent or insufficient signal, my first foray into this area helped to develop the relationship between one of my customers and a newly appointed distributor in Australia.

2011: I had a new car phone fitted that included a number of new features including the talking text! It’s a great innovation to be able to hear texts as you drive, but preferably not in a Japanese-English voice, and I won’t go into the arguments I now regularly have with my hands free voice dialling system about who I had in fact intended to call - the car always seems to win anyway!

So whether you are a Luddite or a Geek, you need to be prepared for what is next. It isn’t so much about using the latest technological tool, more about optimising the mix of tools that is there. Technology has had a staggering impact on the way we conduct international business. 

Friday, 9 August 2013


The timing of international sales visits can be affected by so many things, and with most businesses doing most of their business between February and early July and again between September and early December, they naturally take into account the traditional holiday periods in the summer and festivals such as Eidh and Christmas. It is important to be aware of the multiple religious and cultural festivals that take place around the world, because if you arrive in a country on a public or religious holiday you are likely to find it very difficult to find people to do business with, often for several days as people take additional holiday days to be with their families.

A mix of knowledge of the market that you travelling to and good planning will help you to keep your business travel days to times when your customers are most likely to give you their best attention. And that is an easy thing to do. However, there are some events that can have a deeper and longer lasting impact on our ability to do business internationally, and this Tale focuses on a couple of incidences where my own business and those of a client were affected by national elections.

The most recent of these occurred when I was helping one of my clients to achieve the right technical certification for their products to enter the US market. The company manufacture hygienic wall cladding and they are relatively new to international business. They had received a number of good enquiries from distributors and installers in both the USA and Canada, keen to represent their unique products.  However, their ability to do so was significantly held back by the fact that the company had not yet achieved the ASTM fire retardance standard. They had all the necessary EU certification, for which the tests are probably more rigorous than the ASTM tests, and therefore assumed that achieving ASTM would something be a formality.

Their application was immediately rejected, and when they asked me why I thought that was, I said ‘it will be the Presidential Election’, which I don’t think they quite believed. However there was good reason for me saying that The world had just come through the most serious economic crash since the Great Depression of the 1930’s, and President Obama was seeking re-election in its aftermath. A large part of his campaign focused on helping manufacturers in the USA and in helping US citizens back into employment, therefore anything that might get in the way of that, specifically competitive imported products, was not going to be encouraged. Quite simply, it was protectionism.

My point was proven absolutely just weeks after President Obama’s re-election, when my customer resubmitted their application and it was immediately accepted. The trouble is, that by that time their potential distributors had lost in the region of $70,000 of business because their wall cladding had not achieved ASTM where competitive products did, and because they had expended a lot of time and resource in trying to win that business they were less than enthusiastic when my client approached them again with the appropriate certificates in hand. The moral of that particular sub- story is that you should not enter a new market until your certification is in place.

Back in the late 1990’s I was selling carpet tiles throughout Europe, and at the time I was working with our distributor on a project to supply new government offices in Budapest. The timing of specification selling relies initially on the tendering process, and later on a whole range of issues such as the progress of construction programme and the continuing availability of funds. Everything appeared to be going well. Our distributor had made several excellent sales presentations between late 1997 and early 1998, and while we were almost certainly not in pole position to supply to this prestigious project we were still in with a sporting chance.

A parliamentary election in May 1998 caused the whole process to grind to a halt. For at least six months before the election, it seemed that all budgetary decisions were put on hold, causing delays to the progress of the project. We had to wait for several more months while the new administration formulated its spending plans. In the end we failed to win that business, although we believe we came a close second! However, we had expended a huge amount of time and effort and cost in the process, and our distributor had done at least twice the work that we had done. Accepting that even with projects like this there are winners and losers, the prolonged process will have sapped the resource of every one of the suppliers. That election created uncertainty for the best part of a year.

So when you are formulating your five year plan for exports, look carefully at each of the markets you are targeting and at the potential impact of elections, and for that matter any other significant political activities.

Friday, 2 August 2013


Exclusivity can be a precious commodity to both a supplier and their chosen selling partner. In Tale #34, I recounted an experience where exclusivity was granted and led to some excellent business in Spain. But because it can be such a precious commodity, it is folly for a supplier to offer it too readily. The following Tale is one of exclusivity being granted to the wrong distributors, the mistakes that were made along the way, and the resulting difficulty in extricating myself from a poorly negotiated deal!

I had sold products into the Republic of Ireland for several years before I took up a new Export Manager role in the late ‘90s that led me right back there. I loved working in Ireland, and I still do, and not just because of the Guinness and the Tullamore Dew! My maternal grandmother hailed from a Wexford family, so it frequently felt like I was going back to my roots, and generally my experiences of working through distributors there had been extremely positive.

On joining the new company I inherited a situation where our largest export account was in Ireland, and where that largest export account was not paying their bills! They had effectively ridden roughshod over my predecessor, and had assumed the role of ‘exclusive distributor’ without any formal agreement being in place. They were the only show in town, and as our largest export account it fell to me to try and stop the rot. They had exceeded their payment terms. They had exceeded the terms of our credit insurance cover. I had a number of options: allow them to continue to abuse the spirit of the verbal agreement that existed between us, taking more stock and amassing more debt; play hardball with their account; find an alternative distributor. In the end I went for a combination of the last two, first refusing to let them take any more stock, and second starting the process of finding an alternative distributor in case their performance failed to improve.

Stopping shipments to them until their account was back in order was absolutely the right move because I could not risk their debt spiralling further out of control. In the short term it meant two things: they paid their bills and returned below the threshold where our insurers might have refused to pay up in the event of serious default; and my further meetings with them seemed to indicate that future business prospects were good. In reality, their cash flow dive bombed because they no longer had the money they had not been paying us to pay some of their other suppliers, and they eventually went into administration. So our biggest export account was suddenly no more!

Two of their former employees set up a business to try and maintain their own incomes and to hold on to some of the business they had been working on, and hopefully to have the opportunity to prove themselves as our new distributor. However, it was clear they neither had the resource nor finance to handle some of the larger projects we were involved with, so I trawled the country for a suitable alternative who were not already selling for one of our numerous competitors. And I drew a blank until I was introduced by a non-competitive company in the same industry sector to a soundly financed and long standing distributor, more involved with the fixings and fittings for our products than the product themselves. Guess what they wanted? You guessed right! – exclusivity for our products in Ireland.

As our previous exclusive distributors had proven so unreliable, I was determined to agree a formal distribution contract for this new opportunity, and draft contracts were exchanged and amended for the best part of six months (between me and the most pedantic company accountant I think I will ever deal with!) until we had a form of words, targets and conditions that was acceptable to both parties. During this process there were visits to each other’s premises, and regular and positive communications. However, my initial enthusiasm started to wain as I realised that the company did not really have the right experience in specification selling to be able to compete properly in the market. So I introduced them to the two guys who had lost their jobs with our previous distributor, on the basis that they had the experience that the new company lacked.

To cut a very long story short, hard though we all tried, the new arrangement cast in stone as it was, simply didn’t work. I persisted for nearly two years but sales remained poor and nowhere near on the scale that our former distributor provided. I was boxed in because I had agreed an exclusive contract with them, and they did not perform. In truth, it would probably have been better to walk away from the market in Ireland altogether and focus my efforts elsewhere, or maybe I should have persisted with our previous distributor and just managed their account with a mix of flexibility and tight control. So really the message from the whole experience is that if it doesn’t feel altogether right, it is probably never going to be!