SEMA News - September 2009

By Linda Spencer


From A Domestic-Only Business to an Experienced Exporter

SEMA NEWS-SEPTEMBER 2009-INTERNATIONALA great product mixed with great service is the key factor identified by Bob Scheid, vice president of export-savvy flywheel and clutch manufacturer Fidanza Engineering Corp., in the company’s growing overseas sales. The Perry, Ohio-based firm sells to 27 countries around the world and has always been an internationally focused company, growing its international sales alongside its domestic sales since the very start of the firm 12 years ago.

“We were never a solely domestic business,” Scheid said. “We started the company in 1997, and we started exporting in 1997. We knew we must grow the business and keep a wide base geographically and a broad application structure. We understood from the very beginning that, as a small company, we needed to think globally to have the greatest possibility of growth. It is not a separate part of our business plan; it is seen no differently from our need for domestic business.”

Scheid talked about what it takes to develop the right product for a targeted market. In fact, he identified the quick rush to market with off-the-shelf products as one of the biggest missteps taken by firms seeking an international clientele.

“The most common illusion that U.S. companies have is that they will be able to sell what they already have to any market,” he said. “What they need to do is to think about this in reverse. If someone from France came to them and wanted to sell them Opel parts, what kind of market would they have for those in the States. Not very good. The same is true for us U.S. companies trying to sell abroad. Sell to that region what is needed and wanted in that region.”

The key to providing customers what they want is research. “Start by being focused,” Scheid said. “Target specific markets. Do your research to find out what applications that market wants and needs. Don’t rely on what you have. We used everything from Internet searches to magazines from various countries to source leads. If you try to sell Corvette parts to France, you’re not going to be too successful. It takes a complete and well thoughtout plan. It takes doing the research for the market you are targeting.”

With the vast amount of low-cost or free resources, firms don’t have to go it alone to learn about overseas markets.

“Use all of the tools at your disposal,” said Scheid. “SEMA has excellent resources. Go with them on trade missions. Attend the overseas shows with them. Tap those people in SEMA that have the knowledge and the experience to help you get a leg up. They have the experience and knowhow to give a company that has never done business abroad the basic knowledge to get the ball rolling. State and federal programs are also available and can be very helpful with little or no cost.”

Scheid also suggested that firms new to exporting network with other companies that do business overseas. Tap into their experiences, both good and bad. Learn from both their successes and their failures. Besides product research, Scheid advised learning more about how products get to the market by researching the distribution network.

“You may find that if you want to sell to France, most of the distribution goes through Germany,” he explained.

When asked to describe what he would do differently if he was starting over, Scheid said that answer is easy.

“We thought we could do it all from the comfort of our nice cozy offices by sitting behind our desks and using all the technology at our fingertips,” he said. “All of the wonderful new ways to communicate are great and can be useful tools, but it takes travel to get your feet on the ground so that your customers know you and you know them. How can you know how they do business if you never take the time to see them?”

At the end of the day, customers are customers and want to be sure that they will receive quality, in-demand products at good prices in a timely fashion.

“International customers want to know that when that container shows up, it will be filled with products that their customers will be proud to put into their cars or trucks,” Scheid said. “The international customer also needs to know that he will be treated like he is right next door although he is many miles away. It does take a shaking of hands or a breaking of bread together to truly build a bond that results in a long-term customer that is as at ease doing business with you as you are at allowing them to represent your product.”

Scheid counseled firms not to overlook the smaller aspects of customer support that are so important to building brand recognition.

“It takes supporting that customer with ads in the publications that are most read in that country,” he said.

He also noted the importance of building a culture within your own firm so that overseas sales become an important and integral part of the company.

“Make it a culture in your business that you sell abroad,” he explained. “Get your people comfortable and excited about the idea. Give them incentives for opening new international customers. Commit to understanding your customers’ way of doing business. Commit to making international sales a key part of your business plan and not just an experiment.”

To ease into the exporting market, Scheid recommended that U.S. firms first consider targeting English-speaking markets.

“It is always easier to start in countries where this is no language barrier,” he said. “The U.K. and Australia were great first markets to get our feet wet. After you gain some experience, jump in the shallow end and don’t be afraid to creep deeper and deeper until you’re just as comfortable in the deep end as you were before you got into the water.”

Even with Fidanza’s active sales in every continent in the world, Scheid puts his company’s success into perspective with its goals, advising new exporters not to wait for customers to come to them. You will never build dominant market share if you are not aggressively seeking new business.

“What it always makes me think of is not how many countries we sell to now but how many countries are in the world,” he said. “The U.S. recognizes 192 countries. What an opportunity for any company. We sell to 27 countries. That’s only 14%. Yes, we are doing well, but the world is still wide open. Twenty-seven seems like a large number, but 192 is the goal.”

Scheid has started a new firm entitled Performance Management and Consulting LLC.

“This new LLC is here to help companies with any aspect of their business that needs help, from sales to marketing to production,” he said. Scheid and SEMA’s Immediate Past Chairman Jim Cozzie, now president of Certus Strategic Partners, will be leading a seminar at the SEMA Show that will present insider tips on how to grow your overseas business.

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