By Alysha Webb
Borla: A SEMA-Member Export Success Story
Borla Performance Industries has participated on each SEMA overseas business development programs, including those to China, the Middle East and Russia. Pictured (far right) is David Borla, Borla vice president of sales and marketing, talking with buyers at the SEMA China program.
International sales represent some 25% of the total sales at Borla Performance Industries and are growing rapidly. The company is one of the originators of stainless-steel performance exhaust systems, and among the secrets to its success is taking direct control of its international business, said David Borla, 41, vice president of sales and marketing for the 38-year-old firm.
“Nobody knows more about our products than we do,” he said. “We don’t expect our resellers to promote or drive demand for our products.”
As American automakers began to export more performance models around the world, SEMA members such as Borla Performance Industries saw international opportunities grow. The firm, started by Alyse and Alex Borla nearly four decades ago, was a pioneer in selling its products overseas. Alex Borla, the company’s co-founder, CTO and David’s father, is from Romania, so the company first set up an international office in Europe.
“We were very bullish on the European Union,” said the younger Borla.
As it turned out, Europe was not as good a bet as the company expected, he said. While Borla’s products were in demand in Europe, other markets might actually provide the company better opportunities.
“You put your best plans in place and you make adjustments as things start to evolve,” Borla said. “I can tell you that whatever we had planned going into whatever part of the world, those plans have changed. Your success depends on your ability to modify your strategy as you go.”
Success in international sales also requires resilience. The company switched its international focus to emerging markets that included the Middle East, China and Russia. Its fastest-growing international market is currently South America, Borla said.
Market research is also key. Borla uses all of the resources SEMA offers to expand its market knowledge. At the international roundtables, for example, Borla said that he listens a lot and tries to figure out how to apply others’ lessons to his own international business.
“I think no matter how successful you have been, the most important thing is to go into those meetings with an open mind and an intention of improving yourself,” Borla said.
Nothing can replace on-the-ground research, and Borla Performance Industries uses SEMA’s international trips to do that research—especially about end-users in different markets. Borla has been on a sand dune in the Middle East in 130ºF weather and had dinner in the home of a customer in China. He has visited car clubs in many countries and gone to races.
“You need to show a commitment,” Borla said. “Get down on the street level and see how people are using your parts.”
The SEMA trips also help build relationships with distributors, which are crucial. If they like and trust you, distributors are more likely to give you the real picture of the market rather than telling you what they think you want to hear, Borla explained.
“Most of us are good at what we do,” he said. “Those who succeed are the ones who get the deepest understanding of the market and are able to create the right product, price it properly, and promote it properly.”
SEMA Shows Aren’t Held Only in Vegas
Borla attends SEMA trade events in other countries. He is going to China’s SEMA Business Development Conference in September, for example, and he takes advantage of “every precious moment,” he said, talking with people and collecting business cards. And that is just the beginning.
Borla reconnects with the company’s distributors at the SEMA Show in Vegas each year. The Show is also a good place to find new distributors.
“Every year, someone comes up to our booth and becomes a customer,” he said.
He also attends SEMA trade events in other countries. He is going to China’s SEMA Business Development Conference in September, for example, and he takes advantage of “every precious moment,” he said, talking with people and collecting business cards. And that is just the beginning.
“Follow-up is key,” he said. He has a team of people—and a system—to work with the contacts he makes on his international trips. For smaller companies without such resources, prioritization is critical.
“Collect opportunities you can follow up on,” Borla advised.
International business isn’t risk-free. You have to know when to cut your losses, Borla said. For example, Borla Performance Industries stopped selling in Venezuela because it couldn’t get product to its distributors. But Borla advised persistence in the face of such setbacks.
“If you become discouraged easily, you lose the opportunities that come along,” he said. “Put the onus on yourself to figure it out.”
Borla noted that his family’s company has been able to document a return on every overseas SEMA trip it has participated in. He credited SEMA with some of that success but stressed that participants have to make an effort themselves to get the most out of the trips. Doing that requires everything from a possible attitude readjustment to getting enough sleep. And don’t assume that you are offering something international customers can’t live without.
“We really don’t sell anything people need,” Borla said. “It is a ‘want’ product. The notion that anyone needs your stuff—you have to drop that arrogance immediately.”
Building relationships with customers is crucial. Don’t look down on another culture just because it is different, he said.
“You need to be open-minded and respectful when you travel internationally,” Borla explained.
He advised making product displays as portable as possible, because you are limited in what you can bring on a trip, and shipping a display invites problems. Borla said that his company even leaves some of its displays in-country with customers, which helps establish good relationships with them.
Borla Performance Industries’ successes overseas are significant and have won government recognition. The company, with a manufacturing facility in Johnson City, Tennessee, and marketing and sales office in Oxnard, California was presented with a U.S. Department of Commerce Export Achievement Award at the 2012 SEMA Show.
Contact Linda Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about the association’s international resources, including make/model data, the International Happy Hour at the SEMA Show and overseas business-development programs to China, the Middle East and Russia.