Why going global is still local: Top companies explain secrets of success in exporting

Acrow, Undercover Snacks, ISS and Rowan offer insights at 1st N.J. International Trade Awards event

Gokhan Alkanat, the associate provost for international education at Rowan University — a key leader in the school’s effort to build its international program — chuckles when he compares the working environment in two different countries.

In one country, Alkanat said, if you promise 200 lessons that are 45 minutes in length — and you deliver 199 that meet the requirement but one that lasts only 30 minutes, they’ll ask you where the remaining 15 minutes are.

Gokhan Alkanat.

In another, he said, if they say they will get back to you “tomorrow” — you quickly learn that can mean “tomorrow” or “next week” or “next month” or “in the summer.”

Alkanat mentioned the two scenarios — which he explained during a panel session at the first New Jersey International Trade Awards event earlier this month — to make two key points:

  • The business practices are different in different countries;
  • If you want to be an expert of business, it is up to you to learn the ways of the country in which you want to do business — don’t expect them to adjust to your culture.

“You need to adjust your expectations,” Alkanat told the audience of more than 100. “I’m not saying (either model) is bad or good.”

Both models, Alkanat said, are part of the local culture.

“And if you want to work with them, that’s the norm,” he said. “That’s acceptable there — and we have to understand that.”

The winners

The following companies were honored at the first New Jersey International Trade Awards event earlier this month:

  • Exporter of the Year: Acrow Corp. of America (Acrow Bridge);
  • New Exporter of the Year: Undercover Snacks;
  • Minority Owned/Diverse Exporter of the Year: Intelligent Security Systems;
  • Service Exporter of the Year: Rowan University.

The event, sponsored by the New Jersey District Export Council, was intended to bring business and government officials together to talk about exporting — and the unique challenges that go with it.

After a keynote address from Mike Mardy, who remains active on multiple boards after a career helping numerous companies grow internationally, Alkanat was joined on the panel discussion by Bill Killeen (CEO of Acrow Bridge in Parsippany), Diana Levy (founder and CEO of Undercover Snacks in East Hanover) and Daniel Marino (chief operating officer of Intelligent Security Systems in Woodbridge).

Marino also stressed the importance of understanding local culture.

ISS provides video Intelligence and video analytics software in more than 40 countries around the globe. But Marino said the company feels its success has come from a belief that customer service is at the forefront of its business.

Marino said the key is to understand the local geopolitics and local needs of its customers, something ISS achieves by having a company representative in each country it serves.

In fact, Marino said ISS has more technical support people than salespeople.

“Any problem is as good or as bad as the customer service is, so, we are highly focused on that,” he said.

Mike Mardy.

Marino said the desire to have local support teams goes deeper than just speaking the language — it’s speaking the language the way locals do. Spanish, for instance, has different subtleties depending on where you are, he said.

“That’s why make we make sure we have Mexicans in Mexico and Colombians in Colombia,” he said.

These local challenges go beyond the interaction with customers.

Levy said Undercover Snacks is just starting to export its product, which is now being sold in Canada, Israel, Singapore and Japan. No place is like another, she said.

“The paperwork that we have to fill out, the requirements that we have to follow tends to be different,” she said.

In some countries, she needs to be very specific on where her ingredients are sourced. Others asked detailed questions about the company’s carbon footprint.

These requirements have made it imperative to find local assistance, Levy said.

“The biggest challenge for us has been really finding those partnerships — people that we want to work with, that we trust, to build our brand in those countries — and then establishing a relationship with them,” she said.

Levy admits that she’s new at the exporting game. And, while she’s getting better — and smarter — at it on a regular basis, she may never reach the same comfort level she has when doing business domestically.

At least, that’s the take of Killeen, the CEO of a company that seemingly has conquered the export game.

Killeen brings plenty of knowledge — but he said the first lesson for new exporters is that they’ll never know it all. Accepting that is key, he said.

“Generally, I find the greatest obstacle to getting into the export market is, as human beings, we’re immensely good at ruminating about all the catastrophes that might await us business-wise overseas,” he said.

“With that in mind, we made a decision that we’re just going to work through these issues and try to resolve them as we go forward.”

The biggest lesson of exporting is that you never stop learning lessons, he said.

“It’s ongoing process-solving,” he said. “It’s not like you reach a pinnacle and say, ‘Geez, I’ve got this all figured out.’ Every day you’ve got to figure out something new.”