"How can we sell our product to six billion people on the planet?" asked Jeff Dzuira, director of international sales at Ferris Manufacturing Corp.
In 1996, 97 percent of the company's annual revenues were being generated from local sales. Dzuira knew the company had a good product, PolyMem, a pink dressing used to improve the healing of wounds. He also knew the product could be used around the world. Five years and a lot of work later, foreign sales account for 25 percent of total company earnings. "International sales have certainly contributed greatly to the overall growth of Ferris," said Dzuira. The Burr Ridge, Illinois-based company, founded in 1977, employs about 30 people and posts annual sales of $10 million.
Federal officials involved in promoting international trade are urging other business owners to enter the global game, especially as the U.S. economy is slowing down.
"We've been telling small-business owners now is the time to get involved in exporting," said Jean Smith, assistant administrator for trade at the U.S. Small Business Administration. "Take those profits and put them into expanding into overseas markets."
Smith said there are about 200,000 small companies engaged in international trade, a fraction of the 24 million businesses in America. However, she points out that only about 12 million firms have products or services that are exportable.
Having a product or service that works at home and abroad is the first step toward export success. Medical products, like PolyMem, are among the products finding eager customers overseas.
In 1988, founder and CEO Robert W. Sessions patented a formula for his drug-free and irritant-free wound-therapy treatment that stimulates healing and reduces painful wound dressing changes. Now it's known worldwide as "The Pink Dressing."
But going global wasn't always part of Ferris' vision. It began its sales efforts, as most small businesses do, with a strictly domestic focus. But Dzuira said he visualized the world as a single market. He researched and contacted every government office that he could. Working with the resources of state and federal agencies helped him secure the Illinois Governor's Export Award two years in a row.
"I learned of a subsidy available to us through the federal and state governments that would help fund our participation in 'Medica 96,' the world's largest annual medical device exhibition held in Dusseldorf, Germany," said Dzuira. "That venue launched our international sales campaign. The first Medica show yielded us more than 140 qualified leads worldwide and secured us our first large block of distributors."
He acknowledges going global requires a serious investment of time and money. And companies without financial resources cannot make international deals.
"Our packaging needed to be redesigned with multilingual text and accompanying instructions for use," he said, adding that he often relied on suggestions form his local distributors.
It takes effort to build a small business into a world-class operation. Regulations have to be followed and payment methods have to be put in place. It took Ferris three months to secure an international distributor, and sales didn't materialize instantly. Due to the complexities involved in marketing medical products abroad, the company had to seek approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Despite the delays, the effort was worth it. "It's truly rewarding knowing that at the end of the day, not only have international sales been spectacular, but people worldwide have benefited from a very remarkable medical product," says Dziura. "The lessons I learned have not come from seminars, textbooks or advice; rather, they have come from practice in the global playing field which hones the necessary skills to succeed in the marketplace."
Jeff Dzuira's Tips for Taking on the World
1. Get a company-wide commitment. "Every employee at Ferris is a vital member of the international team, from customer service through engineering, purchasing, production, and shipping."
2. Research and map out your export journey.
3. Know where you want to go and go there.
4. Take that decisive step and follow it up with sensible judgment. Jump in with both feet first, but keep them firmly planted on the ground.
5. Keep your ego in check. Don't let the prospect of "going global" inflate your ego and cause misjudgments.
6. If it smells, looks, or feels bad, don't try to rationalize otherwise. Trust your instincts.
7. Treat people as you yourself want to be treated. "People are basically the same worldwide; it doesn't matter where you are. Awareness and respect of cultural protocol demonstrates honesty and goodwill, and this leads to trust, which in turn leads to mutually profitable relationships."
8. Make personal contact with attentiveness, courtesy, professionalism, and consistency. "In-person visits are vital to building a relationship with rapport."
9. Factor in a three-year lead-time for world market penetration. It takes time and patience.
10. In a global marketplace, welcome the unknown. "Don't let the prospect of the unknown frighten you. Rather, learn to welcome it, take it apart piece by piece, and then slowly digest it all. The rewards can be great."
Global Business Resources
Export Counseling Services:
The SBA offers free seven-week export training classes at Export Assistance Centers around the United States. Visit www.sba.govfor information.
is a recipient of the SBA's Illinois Exporter of the Year Award and the author ofStart & Run a Profitable Exporting Business(Self-Counsel Press). She runs Global TradeSource, a Chicago-based global marketing and consulting company.