Scott Jenkins is the president of DIRTT (Doing It Right This Time) Environmental Solutions. This Calgary-based company is a leading technology-driven manufacturer of custom interiors for the commercial and residential construction markets. The company produces prefabricated interior construction solutions using its proprietary ICE 3D design, configuration and manufacturing software with integrated in-house manufacturing capabilities.
When and why did you first start thinking about exporting as part of your business?
We started exporting from day one. We opened our head office in Calgary and were selling into both Canada and the U.S. immediately.
As a company with disruptive technology, moving quickly has been key to your success. How does patience factor in?
We are taking a traditional industry, construction, and using our proprietary ICE technology to flip it on its head. We want to move at a million miles an hour, but when you are a disruptor and operate in international markets, you definitely need patience. Going global is not always a straight line and every market has its challenges. We’ve been expanding globally very strategically, one step at a time. Having a local presence is important and you have to commit 110 per cent to a market or don’t go at all.
What advice would you give an SME looking to export?
You can’t be successful by doing it remotely; you need to have boots on the ground and you have to spend time in the specific markets. It’s very easy to communicate remotely from anywhere, but there is nothing more valuable than a face-to-face conversation, sharing a meal and spending time developing a relationship. The second thing is perseverance. If you truly believe you have world-class technology and solutions and services, then trust yourselves and stick with it, because it takes time.
Is there a specific story/anecdote from your company’s history that you would consider a critical moment for your export journey?
Opening our Savannah, Georgia manufacturing facility in 2009 to better serve our customers and to enhance our distributed manufacturing model, during the recession. It was year four for us and we weren’t profitable yet. The world economy was beyond distressed and the construction industry in the U.S. stopped. We had a competitor quoted as saying we were “crazy” for doing this, but it turned out to be the best decision we’ve made. We were able to build an incredibly talented and strong team because access to labour was very good. While the rest of the world was reducing investment and ducking and running, we were going full speed ahead. It was a bold decision at the time, but since then the facility has almost tripled in size and is operating at the highest throughput of any DIRTT facilities.
What have you learned from exporting that has benefitted your sales/operations in Canada?
For us a significant benefit from exporting is brand recognition and credibility here in Canada. The fact that we are a global company is (also) very beneficial for us and for our business in Canada. Some of our larger Canadian clients also have facilities in the US and elsewhere and they like to know they are dealing with a multinational company. We can provide project references in many countries around the globe.
Can you share your best lesson learned from a bad-exporting experience?
From a logistical standpoint, you need to have good partners. We ship most of our product by truck and we’ve had some crazy things happen, usually due to weather. We actually had a truck in Seattle, Washington hijacked, and we had to reproduce for the client. We were able to do it in 10 days and met the original timeline.
Anything can happen during shipping so you need to develop fantastic relationships with shipping and transport partners with cross-border experience.
When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew when you started?
We can get our solutions around the world easier than we thought. I’ve discovered that those 40-foot ocean freight containers logistically, are the world’s trade highway.
And because our manufacturing lead times are so rapid, even if you add two to three weeks shipping, we’re still three or four times faster than building something conventionally.
As we’ve expanded beyond North America, it’s taken more time because we have had to learn about tariffs and local rules. You have to learn to be very patient.
What is one characteristic that you believe every exporter should possess?
Perseverance and a belief in yourself, your technology and your product as well as a belief in Canadian know-how. We have world-beating companies here, and sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we have and how successful we can be on the world stage.
How has the trading world changed since you started in business?
It’s getting easier to travel and we also have easier access to world markets. Overall, technology is also much better today. Our ICE technology definitely allows us to manage projects more efficiently, be more collaborative and it allows everyone involved to better understand different aspects of our projects. This type of communication transparency is a huge step forward in terms of construction.