9 export tips w/ Emma Granada of SteelMaster
Since joining SteelMaster Buildings in 2006, Emma Granada has been all over the map, much to the delight of her Virginia Beach employer. As head of the company’s exporting program, she has quadrupled foreign sales of its corrugated steel buildings.
The structures serve an array of functions in 50 countries: a pineapple processing plant in Costa Rica, an aircraft hangar in Algeria, even a pearl farmer’s workshop on a tiny atoll in French Polynesia.
“The vision was there,” said Michelle Wickum, marketing director, “and we were willing to head down the international road with Emma on board.”
Their journey is getting attention. The U.S. Small Business Administration invited Granada to be a panelist at National Small Business Week in May. MSNBC aired an interview with her on June 10. Earlier this year, the SBA declared SteelMaster Virginia’s 2012 Exporter of the Year.
SteelMaster gets 20 percent of its revenue from international clients, compared with under 5 percent in 2006. Granada and Wickum recently shared nine strategies for success.
1. Seek out resources. Many agencies and organizations exist solely to help you sell products or services abroad.
For example, the U.S. Commercial Service serves as a matchmaker between small businesses and international clients. Its Gold Key program will research your best markets and arrange in-person meetings or videoconferences with potential buyers and partners. The cost is $350 for first-time customers.
Soon after hiring Granada, SteelMaster applied for Virginia Leaders in Export Trade, a rigorous training program that helps companies expand their international business.
Granada and Vice President Rob Poellnitz graduated in 2009 from the two-year VALET program, offered through the Virginia Economic Development Partnership.
“All of these agencies, they’re out there,” Granada said. “You just have to reach out to them.”
2. Go where the customers gather. Attend trade shows and other events to meet potential clients in your target markets.
SteelMaster, whose rugged buildings double as emergency shelters in Haiti, exhibited this month at an annual conference for international relief agencies. Held June 6-7 in Washington, D.C., the Aid & International Development Forum attracted GlobalMedic, World Relief, Mercy Corps and other groups that rebuild after hurricanes, earthquakes and floods.
“We’re concentrating on disaster- prone areas,” Granada said. “We’re doing a lot of relief-effort work in Haiti, Indonesia and Chile. Our buildings are built to last, to withstand hurricane winds and, according to the seismic code, a certain level of earthquakes.”
3. Invest in language. Want to sell in Latin America? Your website should be in Spanish. Start with a “three-pager” or mini-site. Then, when business booms in Mexico or Venezuela, create a “mirrored” site – such as SteelMaster’s Spanish site – that translates the whole thing.
Hire someone who speaks the language. SteelMaster employs sales reps and engineers who are fluent in Spanish. Granada speaks English, Spanish and French, which came in handy with the Algerian customers, who use French as their business language.
“It’s a good investment,” she said. “It’s amazing the response we get when clients hear someone who speaks their language or at least makes the effort.”
4. Find – and cherish – good distributors. These local contacts in each country will be your “eyes and ears,” Granada says.
Locate and vet them through Gold Key, the VEDP or your local export assistance center (there’s one in Richmond: (804) 771-2246 or buyusa. gov). A good distributor not only distributes your products but promotes your business and attracts new customers.
“Our distributor in Costa Rica has been with us for five years,” Granada said. “He has a construction company that promotes our structures and installs them as well. He’s been very good. Now he actually handles more than one country for us, including Nicaragua and El Salvador.”
5. Be adaptable. Civil unrest, financial calamities and natural disasters can shake the international business foundations you’ve built. This is especially true in emerging countries.
But even well-established nations can lose their footing. A few years ago, SteelMaster was ready to do business with Greece and Romania, and then their economies failed.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Successful exporters are flexible and able to rebound when recession – or revolution – strikes.
6. Develop a “travel guide” for your team. Educate yourself and the staff on cultural etiquette, foreign currencies and other details. As a crash course, ExportVirginia.org has “Fast Facts” profiles of 31 countries.
“We’ve really concentrated on adapting to different cultures in our marketing, our sales, our customer service,” Granada said. “No one nation is the same, and this goes beyond the culture. No nation’s the same market-wise, pricewise, competition-wise. We’ve had to learn about each of the countries that we target. We’ve done a lot of cultural training here with our sales reps.”
Display a clock with the current time in your export country. It sounds trivial, but it could save you from rousing an overseas client with a 3 a.m. call to her mobile phone.
“It’s silly to say, but the time difference is a big one,” Granada said. “We talk with so many people from so many countries every day that it’s good to learn the time difference.”
7. Tailor your business to each market. Don’t assume that your products will translate exactly the same way in every part of the world. In Costa Rica, SteelMaster sells buildings to agricultural clients. Countries in East Africa prefer them for mining operations. In the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, clients use them as churches.
“Our website in Spanish has a church section that we don’t have on our English website,” Granada said. “It’s all about learning to market that specific country.”
8. Easy does it. As a newbie exporter, you need simple, accessible goals with a high probability of success.
Start with nations where language barriers, tariffs and other restrictions are few or nonexistent. (There’s a reason Canada is the top market for U.S. exporters.) Seek out countries that have trade agreements with the United States. The most recent include Colombia, South Korea and, soon, Panama.
“Right off the bat, you want to sell your products,” said Granada, whose first project for SteelMaster was a copper-mining facility in her native Peru. “Ideally, when you’re starting, you want to have those little successes that make you want to go on.”
9. Cast a worldwide web. Thanks to the Internet, the world is getting smaller, Granada said. So use it.
SteelMaster got a nibble on Facebook from a Mexican company that posted on its wall. And the Polynesian pearl farmer? He Googled “steel buildings” and discovered SteelMaster’s website.
“The impact of the Internet has been substantial because of what we do not just on the website but social media channels: video, pictures; it’s like building a big spider web,” Wickum said. “And you never know who’s going to cross over a picture you put on Pinterest that someone in Greenland liked and their friend sees it and goes. ‘That’s the coolest garage, airplane hangar, you name it, I’ve ever seen; let me contact that company.’
"Really, that has evolved our business on the global scale significantly. You never know how a customer’s going to behave, and so you really need to be where you could potentially catch the fly in the web.”