More and more businesses in Atlantic Canada have their eyes on the global market. This issue, Sarah Smellie spoke with three Atlantic Canadian businesses, both newbies and veterans of international trade, about how they do it, what they’ve learned and what you need to know before you ink your first international deal.
Mohammad Moin is driving through the streets of Barcelona, Spain as he talks to Atlantic Business Magazine on the phone—via Bluetooth, of course. He’s there for business, looking to see if it would make sense to set up Somru Bioscience’s European office there, but he’s also saved himself a few days for pleasure. “My brother is in the car with me right now, too,” he says.
It’s his younger brother, though, he says—not Rafiq, the brother with whom he founded Somru. Rafiq had been in the bioscience business for over a decade and already had an impressive roster of international contacts when they founded Somru, so Mohammed says there wasn’t a lot of legwork for them to break into the market overseas. “We already had a good network of people,” he said. “We knew the pinpoints of the industry.”
Right now, they do most of their work in Europe and Asia, but as regulations change in the United States, they’re inching into that market, too, he says.
His main advice for any Atlantic Canadian businesses looking to expand into other countries is to have confidence. “I think that Atlantic Canadian companies sometimes are too polite,” he says. At trade missions or trade shows, he says he often sees a big difference in how business owners present themselves and their products. “[Someone from] the U.S. will say, ‘I have the best company in the world!’” But owners of Atlantic Canadian businesses sometimes seem less willing to put themselves up on the same pedestal. “Have faith and have confidence in your product when you go out and market yourself,” he says.
He also says you should seek out export services in your area. In P.E.I., for example, organizations like Innovation PEI have helped him find new clients, setting him up with matchmakers during trade missions as far away as Dubai. “Innovation PEI, Trades PEI—both organizations have really good people.”
“And I think some people don’t know about the Trade Commissioner Services,” he adds. Through the Trade Commissioner Services (TCS), the federal government has commissioners stationed in 160 cities across the world who can help businesses navigate trade agreements, tariffs and export controls. They can also help businesses get ready for international export and make contacts overseas. TCS was instrumental in his business dealings in Europe, for example, Mohammed says.
This past year, Mohammed has been to Dubai, U.S., Vietnam, India, Spain, Netherlands and Germany—all for Somru. He says he avoids exhaustion and homesickness by reserving a few days at the end of any business trip to immerse himself in the local culture and to spend time with family abroad. For example, the brother in the car with him in Barcelona had flown from Manchester to meet him and they were enjoying a day of sightseeing together. It’s just one of the perks of doing international business, he says.
Mohammed Moin co-founded Somru Bioscience eight years ago in Charlottetown with his wife Dihan Ahsan, brother Rafiq and his brother’s wife Clarinda Islam, after enrolling at UPEI as an international student a decade before. Somru BioScience produces antibodies and reagents for biochemical research and biosimilar research, and has clients in 25 different countries around the globe.
For CMP president Trevor Spinney, who has been with the company for nine years, taking on international clients meant stepping up CMP’s game in a big, big way. “One of the lessons that we learned was that clearly you need to operate on all eight cylinders,” he says. From the sale to the design, his team is “living and breathing” a project to ensure everything is perfect before it heads out the door. Then it needs a flawless, systematic installation; if problems arise during an installation halfway across the world, the fix is going to take a lot of expensive travel and shipping. “We had to put a series of processes together that ensured excellence in everything we do,” he says.
It’s a lot of pressure, he agrees, but that perfect execution can often lead to the next international client. “Once you make a name for yourself, you can take that one piece of business and then multiply it,” he says. “But you’re only as good as your last project. So you have to make sure that you execute flawlessly and continue to earn that ticket to the dance.”
And hey, sometimes the pressure has major perks. When his team was installing CMP equipment in a prawn plant in Saudi Arabia, they were put up at a five-star hotel. “My men weren’t arguing there!”
Spinney says CMP also does some advertising in specialty food magazines to let potential clients know they’re out there. CMP was recently acquired by Food Process Solutions, based in British Columbia, and Spinney says that partnership has had great benefits, giving CMP access to FPS’s salespeople and global connections.
When his team is shipping equipment to international customers, Spinney says they always expect the unexpected. Operating overseas often puts you at the mercy of the weather, and as everyone in Atlantic Canada knows, that can often spell disaster. Spinney says he once had a 40-foot container full of CMP equipment bound for Australia tied up in Panama for three weeks because of a hurricane. “You can’t predict those things,” he says. “The lesson there is you just have to work with really good freight-forwarding partners and broker houses that know how to navigate when issues come up.”
Ultimately, when it comes to international business, Spinney’s advice is to focus. “Keep your head on straight, stick with what you know. We found that growth comes from focus. Focus on the products and solutions that you’re very confident in.”
Founded in 1958, Charlottetown Metal Products (CMP) employs over 100 people, making specialized equipment for food processors all over the world. Though they do a lot of business in Canada and the United States, there is CMP equipment in Europe, Asia, South America and even in a prawn plant in Saudi Arabia.
It was through a World Green Building Council connection that CarbonCure found Pan-United, a 1,200-employee strong Singapore-based company focused on innovative concrete solutions, says Christie Gamble, the company’s senior director of sustainability. It didn’t take long for CarbonCure to see that Pan-United’s values aligned with their goals. Pan-United was the first concrete firm to attain the Singapore Green Building Council’s “Leader” certification, the highest level of sustainability certification from the council. “It’s part of their corporate culture to continue to innovate for the purpose of progressing the performance of concrete, the sustainability of concrete,” Gamble says.
Pan-United is also technology-driven, with extensive testing and research capabilities, which meant CarbonCure could count on them to do the testing needed to make sure the CarbonCure technology fit with Pan-United’s systems, she says. The two companies began talking in June 2018 and they finalized their partnership just four months later. “I’d say it was very quick,” Gamble says.
Though the courtship was short, the six months of tests that followed were both careful and exhaustive, she says. The CarbonCure technology was finally installed in the first Pan-United plant in February 2019. According to a CarbonCure news release, the technology has the potential to reduce emissions at each of Pan-United’s plants by 4,000 tonnes a year.
According to Gamble, working with Pan-United boosted them up and over the inevitable learning curve that comes with dealing with infrastructure in a completely different country with completely different building codes and requirements. “Even just cultural understanding, understanding how the businesses operate,” she says. “They’ve been wonderful for helping us to understand all the implications that we need for doing business in Singapore.”
The CarbonCure technology is now in three Pan-United plants and Gamble says they’re in talks to expand into more. The company is also looking to expand further into Asia and then into Europe. Gamble says they had a bit of help attracting the attention of potential international partners when Bill Gates posted about CarbonCure on his blog in October. “Part of the challenge is just staying focused on doing what we’re capable of doing. The world is a very big place and you can’t be everywhere all at once,” she says.
Her main advice for Atlantic Canadian companies looking to go international? Retain local partners who can help you gain a deeper understanding of the market you’re looking at, she says. “What are all the implications that affect your business or your technology or your product in that market? What are the cultural implications of doing business in that market?” The best way to find out, she says, is to have strong partners on board who know.
“We also recommend researching Canadian trade agreements,” she says. “There may be some barriers that are non-starters for going into certain locations, so if you can identify those up front you can save some time and money.”
CarbonCure has always been focused on the international market. Their proprietary system injects captured CO2 into concrete, resulting in a stronger product with a reduced carbon footprint. Last November, CarbonCure announced its first international client: a partnership with Pan-United, Singapore’s largest concrete and cement company, with operations in Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.