Lee Whittaker is the CEO of United Safety – a company that provides industrial safety products and services for the oil and gas industries.
You can learn more about their export success here.
1. What was your first export sale?
It was in Vietnam in 1992.
2. How did that first export opportunity arise?
Our large multinational customer was working there and we had worked for them in Alberta so we were known as subject-matter experts. They were familiar with our work.
3. When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
Know your customer is a big one. We came from innocent Alberta, Canada, where everyone is who they say they are. In the rest of the world, that’s not necessarily the case so the innocence has to rub off pretty quickly. We had to grow up quite a bit. I wish I’d known more about that. No real horrible experiences to talk about, but it was a steep learning curve.
Also, if you have infrastructure in the host country, measure twice and cut once in terms of your setup and how you’re going to market yourself. There’s also customs and work permitting. Those are also things we don’t really think about and they’re a big deal. Know the rules of that country very well. My CFO would also mention the taxes and the foreign exchange rules.
4. How has the trading world changed since you started in business?
ISIL and DAESH don’t help as it relates to civility in our market. They create a lot of background noise. We don’t work in areas where we feel threatened, but the customer might feel threatened and might be reconsidering long-term investments carefully. You have to be nimble because you can get caught with a bunch of promises and forecasts and you’re on the wrong side of the forecast if you’re not careful. We pay lots of attention to the spend patterns of our customers. If they’re publicly traded, we follow them very closely.
5. What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about export and trade?
Plan, plan, plan and when you’re finished planning, plan some more. You have to consult with your peer group and have open dialogue with your customers. You have to be very diligent in terms of your work scope. All of that is very important. Also, English is not always the first language when you’re exporting and investing in a translator makes a lot of sense.