Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Amman, Algiers and Amsterdam

You’re probably wondering what sort of blog this is going to be with a strange title like this. Apart from starting with the letter “A” – what do these three capital cities have in common and why have they been singled out? Well, in fact they represent three phases in my export career which began in 1977 and shows no sign of petering out even today in 2012. Amman was one of the places where I learnt the basics of export trade, working on large deals involving many thousands of tonnes of titanium dioxide for the huge and then still burgeoning Jordanian paint manufacturing industry. Jordan was a fascinating and exciting country but not a particularly easy market to get to grips with for someone in their early 20’s, fresh out of university, inexperienced in business and struggling to build a career. So much was unfamiliar, unstructured, and risky and how on earth was I going to forge a business relationship with these people about whom I know so little? Of course I persisted, did my homework, consulted with more experienced colleagues and generally “got stuck in”.

My second port of call was Algiers – here the business involved was altogether much more significant due to the buying power of the wealth generated for Algeria by her natural resources of oil and gas. This represented a great opportunity for me but equally of course it represented a significantly bigger challenge as literally every supplier in the world was now chasing the same business I was after. Again, whilst it was fascinating to explore the market - “la ville blanche”of Algiers with its colonial French architecture, Berber souks and spicy lamb tagine cuisine, Algeria was a difficult market to do business with because of its sprawling and yet intricate web of state-run bureaucracy. It was no easy matter to locate the correct contacts, make effective presentations and ultimately nigh on impossible to win the hearts and minds of a purchasing committee that often involved 20 or more people all talking at once and ignoring or seeming to ignore what was put before them. However, I persisted (this time I am working in the construction industry where project selling for a turnkey job could often span many years from design to construction and handover) and was duly rewarded for use of my weapons of choice in this battle - patience and tenacity.
Following that experience I was bitten so badly by the overseas bug that I took on a contract involving 4 years spent living and working in Riyadh before finally returning to the UK in the late 1980’s to resume exporting but from a UK base. I spent a number of years working for British companies in various European and North American cities before setting up Barnhill Marketing in 1999.

And so, to the Amsterdam phase. This refers to a period when I was fortunate enough to start working as a consultant and was given the opportunity to pass on some of the export knowledge and skill I had acquired over the years. My first major client was a pet food manufacturer where we managed to grow the business via international trade which originally was done only on an accidental basis. By exhibiting in key overseas markets, the main one of which was the Private Label Manufacturer’s Association in Amsterdam, we were together able to expand, diversify and ultimately transform the company into the successful and fast-growing organisation it is today with links into many countries around the world being a cornerstone of its sustainability. This consultancy phase meant I was able to cast my net wider than before and found myself helping exporters all over Wales via the Welsh Government’s International Trade Development business support programme which ran non-stop for approximately 5 years. Today I am delighted to be able to keep this work going through a variety of means such as my Chairmanship of the North East Wales Export Forum, my own private sector export clients and funded programme coaching such as Leadership and Management or BIS Coaching for Growth.

And finally I can conclude this blog by simply saying that all of the positive outcomes mentioned above have come about for two main reasons:
·         An instinctive and intuitive love of all things overseas ignited by a passion for languages
·         A desire to take the harder route in the first place and ignore the softer option
By going to Amman and Algiers I was giving myself a considerable challenge - made even harder by the fact that I was offered a post in Paris at the same time which really tested my resolve! I was determined to follow the more challenging path then and I’m still determined to do the same today. I’m trying to challenge myself every day and in my opinion it’s not a bad way of ensuring your business stays fresh, ahead of the game and, in the last analysis, fit for survival. In these times of real economic hardship I would suggest that my “export” strategy could profitably be adopted in many areas of business, management and leadership. The parallels with other areas of life are also legion but perhaps most appropriately in the world of sport which gives us a short mantra to end the blog with which I think is particularly apt for our purposes and also has the added advantage of being very easy to remember when it’s needed:
“No pain – no gain”