What it takes to be an international trade professional: Export insights from FITT’s Caroline Tompkins

What it takes to be an international trade professional: Export insights from FITT’s Caroline Tompkins

Since its establishment in 1992, the Forum for International Trade Training (FITT) has been developing and providing quality training programs, resources and professional credentials to prepare individuals and businesses to compete successfully in world markets. FITT’s international business training solutions have become the standard of excellence for global trade professionals, and it takes pride in being one of the most trustworthy sources of current, industry-validated information on how to buy, sell, manufacture, finance and source products, raw materials or services anywhere in the world.

Caroline Tompkins joined FITT as President and CEO in 1996 and has been successfully leading the organization for the past two decades. She is steadfast in her commitment to FITT’s continued growth as a thriving organization for international trade professionals, and has cultivated relationships with the many industry and government partners fundamental to its success.

“Working with individuals from different backgrounds and regions of the world is one of the aspects I enjoy most about my role at FITT,” she says. “I’ve found that success in international trade really depends upon taking the time to learn how to communicate effectively and respectfully with those around you.”

ExportWise sat down with Caroline to learn more about FITT and her experience in trade and exporting.

When and why did you first start thinking about exporting as part of your business?

Given the nature of the business we are in, exporting has always been part of our thought process. As a Canadian not-for-profit organization, and one that for many years was funded through the Canadian government, we were not looking at international trade as part of our growth strategy until more recently. You could consider FITT an occasional exporter in the past, responding to opportunities as they arose.

Today, as we plan for 2020, we are building an export strategy within our strategic plan to leverage our strong digital presence on a global basis, as well as the “internationalization” of our core training program, FITTskills.

While it is true that every country has unique aspects of its exporting system, the goal of FITT is to find the common threads and practices that occur within the present world of integrated trade and global value chains. Ensuring that our content is relevant to any individual working in international trade, regardless of what country they live and work in, allows us to market the program internationally.

What was your export journey like to get to where you are today?

Opportunistic – and challenging. In effect, we would respond to international enquiries rather than being pro-active. And, most of the occasions we had to export were a result of the connections we developed over the years, and word of mouth. Our first experience was through one of our Canadian colleges that set up an exchange with a university in China; the challenge we had with this group was determining “how to get paid”. A few years later we entered into an agreement with a New Zealand association which delivered our training program, FITTskills, to the business community. We continue to export our training to people in a number of countries, through these types of partnerships and connections.

In 2013 the FITTskills program went on-line, resulting in an increase in our international audience, which now represents approximately 10% of client base.  

What is the biggest difference between selling in Canada and selling in another country? How did you adapt to that difference?

In the business we are in, providing standards for certification, accreditation, and training, the biggest difference we find is in the terminology and definitions used for different types of “credentials” and the “standards” in which each credential is based on. For instance, while the terms “Certification” and “Certificates” are similar, and often used interchangeably, in the world of credentials there are distinct differences from country to country.

FITT employs rigorous standards in developing its certification programs. This means we often have first to “educate” our potential international clients on the value of this development process, and then speak to the value of the products and services we provide.

To further these efforts, we have published articles and white papers to describe the research methodologies we use in developing trade training and certification. We also have a section on our website that outlines our approach to training and certification called “the FITT difference.”

How has exporting changed the way you market/sell your products/services in Canada?

The biggest change we have undertaken in selling our products/services in Canada is technology driven, rather than export driven. These days, our approach in marketing our services focuses on demand creation. International trade is not readily considered a profession in Canada or internationally. Yet, we know that a company relying on exports as a growth strategy requires competent people who have the knowledge, skills and abilities to recognize opportunities as they arise, and are able to implement risk mitigation strategies.

At the same time, there is a lack of awareness among many businesses about the competencies required to ensure they are globally competitive. In focusing on building our online community through the development of free resources and our blog, www.tradeready.ca, we are identifying issues and solutions that individuals working in international trade are facing. At the same time, we are elevating the value of the individuals that have chosen international trade as a career path.

What have you learned from exporting that has benefited your sales/operations in Canada?

FITT’s exporting experience reiterated the need to stay committed to our rigorous standards and certification approach, regardless of what an international client may ask of us. Sometimes it can be very difficult to refuse to do business with a potential partner that can bring in international sales. But, if they are seeking to undermine the standards that are embodied in the FITT credentials, then we have no choice.

For example, in the past we have been asked to adjust our examination pass rate to accommodate those who may not have English or French as their first language. Rather than adjust our pass rate, we have suggested that the partner consider using the course material as content, but exclude the examinations. The caveat being that, without the examination, no FITT credentials could be granted.

Our stakeholders have come to value and rely upon the demanding requirements we expect from the individuals that hold FITT credentials. We would not want to compromise this for the sake of increasing sales as we see this as a short-term growth strategy that could negatively impact our long-term credibility and sustainability.

Can you share the best lesson learned from a bad exporting experience?

Stay true to your company’s core values, regardless of what country you are doing business in. And don’t be afraid to fire a client or partner if their demands or decisions are not aligned with your company’s core values.

When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew when you started exporting?

I wish we had a guaranteed system for selecting the right international partner. We will likely never have that guarantee, but today we are much better at assessing whether a partner is a good fit for us than when our first opportunities arose.

What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about exporting and trade?

To succeed in global business, companies need people with the right international trade skills, knowledge and abilities. Developing international business intelligence within your company is one of the most important things you can do to drive your export plans.

Employees that work within the international functions of your company often have more of a strategic role, as they make decisions that affect the way your company invests, grows, and competes. It’s important to remember that they are the drivers of growth for your company, rather than a factor supporting growth.

You can have the right product, at the right price and the perfect export plan. But, if you don’t have trade capable people it will be a struggle to grow your exports.

What is the one characteristic that you believe every exporter should possess?

A passion for life-long learning. The international business environment is always changing, and exporters will face many complex cultural differences. The best way to face these challenges is to ensure you are always enhancing your knowledge.

Categories Exporting

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