HERD North America’s make-or-break export decision happened in 2004.
In business less than a year, the Winnipeg-based company, which manufacturers protective bumper guards for semi- and pickup trucks, received an order for seven unique products from Montana and committed to filling it in four weeks.
“We borrowed a truck (like the Montana buyer’s), which was different than what we had built products for up to that point, and we managed to fill the order,” remembers HERD’s Head of Product, Ryan Bourget. “It was a lot of work and we were under pressure, but we did it. And that customer continued to buy our stuff. We had that design-and-build experience going forward.”
Exports now account for just over half of HERD sales, with the firm’s products destined primarily to the U.S., and the balance heading to Mexico and South Africa.
The company’s 10 lines of bumper, grill and fully integrated guards – the latter of which both replace a factory bumper and protect a vehicle’s grill – are very popular among individual and fleet transport truck owners who want premium looks and robust protection.
Bourget says HERD’s protective gear guard against the sort of incidental bumps and scrapes that “happen all the time” on the road.
He adds that having a good quality product and excellent customer service have been keys to the firm’s success south of the border.
“We’ve always tried to make it easy and profitable for customers outside of Canada and here, to deal with us.”
Prior to starting his career at HERD in 2003, Mark Daudet worked for a Canadian company that imported and sold truck protectors made in New Zealand. He believed he could improve upon the design.
“He visited Australia and eventually partnered with one of the premier manufacturers there,” explains Bourget. “Truck protectors, called ‘roo bars’ there, are popular on most semi trucks, but essential on ‘road-train’ trucks that drive across the Outback towing three to six 48-foot trailers, hundreds of kilometers from civilization.”
Daudet also sent employees including Bourget to Australia to learn from the company’s partner, but Bourget notes that they couldn’t just replicate what that company was doing.
“It was crucial to learn the concepts of how to make these products in Australia, but the truck designs are very different in North America,” he says. “It was a matter of taking the concepts and applying them.”
EDC resources to help you export
The result was a unique sweptback design in HERD’s ‘Aero’ product line, which feature maximum airflow, superior aerodynamics and a great physical style that has proved popular among long-haul truckers. In the early days, HERD’s staff included only a handful of people. Today it has grown to 100 employees.
At one time the company looked to China to boost its manufacturing capacity expand its export and domestic sales, but ultimately decided to consolidate production back in Canada.
“Because we were sourcing a lot of materials in China for manufacturing and shipping, and labour is cheaper, we tried having a plant in China for one product that (accounts for) about 10 to 15 per cent of sales. After two years, we closed it down because of the high U.S. dollar and because the production improvements and increased capacity at the Winnipeg factory meant we had the capacity to absorb production of that line here.”
Bourget emphasizes the company’s commitment to customer service has been crucial to building HERD’s export and Canadian markets.
“As much as our sales are business-to-business, having good customer service and keeping a focus on that, is incredibly important,” he says. “Inevitably things will go wrong. You define your relationship (by) how you handle things when they go south. If you leave customers high and dry, they are going to go elsewhere.”
HERD ensures it goes to the extreme to make sure its customers are looked after, Bourget adds.
Among the examples of HERD’s dedication to customer service was its decision to incorporate a design feature that helps the long-haul industry make life a little easier for drivers, which are in short supply.
“When drivers need to check the oil, they have to tilt the bumper down and that isn’t easy for older or smaller drivers,” Bourget explains. “We created ‘Lift Assist,’ a spring system that helps to lift our product up from the open position, so that drivers don’t have to manage nearly as much weight.
“If we can go to a potential customer and say ‘here’s something that we offer that will make it easier to hire or retain new drivers, and no one else offers it,’ then we’ve helped them and we have the sale.”
HERD is aiming to grow its U.S. business to reflect 75 per cent of its global sales within three to five years.
“It’s a big market, and they say that your U.S. sales should be 10 times your Canadian sales, so that’s our aim,” Bourget notes.
He advises leaders of SMEs looking to break into new markets to avoid getting distracted.
“Don’t get overwhelmed saying ‘yes’ to everything. Stick to what you’re good at and what has built your success,” he says. “Don’t lose sight of that and don’t lose focus.”