The Quebec company SBB started exporting in 1989, and today, it has a presence in 50 countries throughout the world—in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and, more recently, Africa. “We generally target countries where the infrastructure is rather weak and at risk. These are often developing countries,” explains Patrick Gharzani, Vice President at SBB.
The company manufactures aluminum modular towers that are mainly used to restore power on damaged power lines. Originally, SBB specialized in steel structures, and it was actually a customer who requested the company manufacture this aluminum product.
After a successful first export sale, SBB decided to improve the requested product and market it. “Our next sales were in Columbia, where guerrillas had sabotaged several pylons. Our product was exactly what was needed to repair the damage,” says Gharzani.
Drawing on its experience in that market, SBB decided to consolidate its presence in Latin America, which brought significant transport-related advantages. After making its first sales, the company spent a few years developing the market, a process that exporters have to patiently go through before they can see real results. “This is a niche market, and the typical sales cycle for our products is two to three years,” explains Gharzani.
Like many exporting companies, SBB benefitted greatly from technological advances that allowed it to better reach its customers. However, Gharzani doesn’t believe these technologies can ever replace face-to-face interactions: “We rely a lot on direct contact—we attend three trade shows and take over 15 business trips every year, which is huge for a company of our size.” He feels that this allows the company to understand its customers’ needs and show them they care. “That’s how bonds are formed and trust is built,” he concludes.
Beyond focusing on business development and strengthening ties with its customers, SBB is committed to offering quality products—a focus shared by each of the company’s employees. “It’s something we monitor very closely. Since we manufacture our towers ourselves, we have full access to the qualitative aspect of production,” Gharzani explains.
In his opinion, any business wishing to export its products should display the same attention to detail in all of its processes and operations. “It’s a very demanding approach in terms of time and money. If a company has operational problems, exporting will only magnify them.” Reassuringly, he adds: “It’s important to do your homework before jumping in, but you’re not alone! Many helpful resources are at your disposal.”
For SBB, EDC has played an integral role in the export strategy from the start, and Gharzani expects this partnership to continue for years to come: “25 years later, we are still partners with EDC. They really are an essential player in the export process today.”
Five questions for Patrick Gharzani, General Manager at SBB
1. What was your first export sale?
In 1989, a customer from Mexico approached us to see if we could build a certain type of tower for them. Back then, we only built steel structures. This gave us the idea to improve the requested product and market it.
Our next sales were in Columbia, which was facing a difficult situation with guerrilla attacks in the early 90s. Our product was exactly what was needed to repair the damage.
2. Despite SBB being a SME, you’ve achieved an impressive international presence. How did you manage this?
Aside from developing and manufacturing a very high-quality product, we have invested a lot of time and effort into building relationships with our customers and establishing a network of agents and business partners in over 60 countries. We also participate in many trade shows and meetings abroad, which brings us a lot of visibility. All these activities help us maintain our global leadership position in this growing market.
3. When it comes to exports, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
In our business, we do a lot of work with governmental and para-governmental organizations, and we assume that they will be able to pay us. Unfortunately, early on, we hadn’t realized that it might take up to 8 to 10 months for us to receive payment. As an exporting company, we need that funding to support other projects. We definitely learned our lessons, and today, 95% of our transactions are secured by a letter of credit or another financial instrument that helps ensure we get paid.
4. How has the trading world changed since you started in business?
Technology has brought markets a lot closer together. About 15 years ago, customers could be experiencing problems without ever knowing there was a solution. Technology can now connect them to us and vice versa.
However, the cultural characteristics of each market have not changed, and technology can’t replace personal relationships. Those are still our best asset. We rely a lot on direct contact—we attend three trade shows and take over 15 business trips every year, which is huge for a company of our size. We do it to meet our customers and show them we care. That’s how bonds are formed and trust is built.
5. What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about export and trade?
That international trade is a complex activity that requires expertise and takes time to generate concrete results. You need to be financially and emotionally prepared to take risks and persevere through the first years.
At SBB, we were lucky to be approached by a customer for our very first sale abroad, but we had to spend two or three years developing the market afterwards, which represents the typical sales cycle for our products.
Lastly, it’s important to do your homework before jumping in, but you’re not alone! Many helpful resources are at your disposal.