Sampath Fernando, founder and CEO of Burnaby, B.C.-based Tropical Link, says to be a successful exporter you need to be like a spider.
“You must have lots of patience. No matter how many times a spider’s web is broken, it just starts building it again. The spider doesn’t spend time worrying about what just happened or who broke the web, it just builds it again because it knows it needs a web to survive. The spider never gives up.”
That analogy hints at the years of hard work required to start an agrifood export company and build a web of business contacts that reaches into nearly 30 countries.
Ten years ago the Fernando and Amarasinghe families immigrated to Canada from Sri Lanka with plans to establish an agrifood export business.
“We started very small but had a big vision,” says Fernando. “We decided to settle in the Vancouver area to give us access to the port. Canada is rich in agricultural products and that was an area where we had some experience from our business in Sri Lanka. We developed our business plan to focus on organic products and on being an ethically and socially responsible company.”
When Fernando and Madhava Amarasinghe considered local agricultural products they identified the large quantities of blueberries and cranberries being grown in B.C. and recognized that other companies were already exporting fresh and frozen berries.
“To be competitive we knew we had to add value to the berries and take them out of the commodity market. We did that by focusing on dried berries and making sure we could find buyers.”
According to the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture in 2014 B.C. agrifood exports reached $2.96 billion with blueberries alone accounting for $169 million in sales.
Today Tropical Link exports dried cranberries, blueberries, cherries and juice concentrate to 27 countries under the Snow Farms brand, however, the firm’s original focus on identifying buyers remains a top priority.
Among the firm’s strategic tools to find buyers is a robust marketing plan that sees the Tropical Link team attending major events like Food Hotel Shanghai, SIAL Paris and Gulf Food Dubai. Fernando says a strong presence at trade shows allows the company to support and service its existing agents and showcase its products to new buyers.
“I also think it is important to meet with our buyers in their own countries and the shows help us do that.” The company’s biggest markets are Taiwan, Japan, China, Hong Kong, the United States and Mexico.
He adds that it’s important to have a significant budget for product sampling, and to spend the budget.
“You can’t save on sampling if you are in the food export business. You have to spend that budget to keep growing. You have to deliver good samples and a sample can cost anything from $200 to $500, and there are no guarantees of orders. You have to do it anyway, from many samples you may get one buyer, but business with that one buyer can grow.”
Fernando’s advice to companies looking to enter the export business is to start small.
“Don’t put everything you have into your first delivery; make sure your shipments are going through smoothly before you make big shipments. If there are problems, you can correct them before you increase your volumes.”
Reflecting on the company’s success after winning the Surrey Board of Trade’s 2015 international trade award in the Small Business Category (revenue under $15 million), Fernando has some insights to share.
- You must have a desire to do business; it’s not for everyone.
- You have to be honest with your staff and with your customers. The people you do business with must be able to trust you.
- You need lots of patience. Developing an export business takes time and energy and you can’t get discouraged if something goes wrong. You have to be like a spider. If the spider’s web gets broken it immediately starts to build it again.
Alongside the export business Tropical Link imports organic products such as red rice, coconut syrup, coconut oil, coconut vinegar and cinnamon. These products are sold under the Wild Tusker brand in major Canadian grocery chain stores including some Loblaw’s banner stores, T&T Supermarkets, IGA, H Mart, Choices and in the US. Tropical Link redirects a portion from the sale of every product to the Wild Tusker Foundation to support the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage that cares for orphaned baby Asian elephants in Sri Lanka’s Sabaragamuwa province.
Five questions with Sampath Fernando
1) What was your first export sale?
We started small. Our first sale was 12 kg of dried cranberries to Taiwan.
2) How did that first export opportunity arise?
A customer responded to an advertisement we placed in many online business portals.
3) When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
We knew the market in China was big, but we didn’t realize just how big. Now we have a better understanding of the potential and we are seeing strong growth. We have also learned the value of having one’s own staff stationed overseas. Our senior manager, Thusith Fernando, is based in Sri Lanka developing new and emerging Southeast Asian markets.
4) How has the trading world changed since you started in business?
Globalization means it is more competitive for the multinationals. But small business is not as impacted as the multinationals. Small companies are still building their businesses they don’t have to maintain huge market share like Coca Cola. There is always potential, there are always new markets and new partnerships.
5) What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about export and trade?
You have to be aware of regulations. It doesn’t matter if you like or dislike the regulations, you have to follow them. Regulations aren’t going to change for your business, you have to modify your business to meet the regulations. Do your due diligence on the regulations in every country [you export to] and know that regulations can change and it’s your responsibility to know about any changes.