Geoff Atkins is Executive Advisor to Mississauga-based Silfab Solar, a photovoltaic (PV) product manufacturer that has quickly grown from a purely domestic manufacturing and sales company to a power exporter.
When and why did you first start thinking about exporting as part of your business?
We had to make a decision on a strategic direction and plan for growth. That was in 2014, the same year I joined the company.
Is there a specific story/anecdote from your company’s history that you would consider a critical moment for your export journey?
The critical moments were all encompassing. We move materials across the border, and have to get border services in both countries involved and navigate all those components. We work with Export Development Canada (EDC), and manage our budget with U.S. income and Canadian expenses. Each one of these challenges is critical, but each came at a different time. We’ve dealt with many unexpected things.
Some of our first customers were disappointed or let down by other exporters of PV modules, but their mistakes translated into our opportunities.
What’s your biggest piece of advice on successful exporting?
Use the resources available to you. If you don’t know they are available, do the research. Whether that’s EDC or the experiences of other exporters, or the Trade Commissioner Service, it’s imperative to use as many resources as you can. You’re not down the street from customers or suppliers.
What’s been the internal message within your company in going global?
Everyone at the company understands that we have to integrate our business and team into the market that we’re looking to sell into. In our case, that’s the U.S. Servicing the U.S market has been our primary thought, not a secondary one. It’s like Apple. It’s perceived as an American company, but nothing is made on U.S. soil. It’s your mindset that is most important, not where products are made.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started exporting?
It’s like construction – double the cost and double the time. As much as you plan and calculate and have significant experience, things take longer and there are unexpected expenses midway through the process.
What is the #1 thing new SMEs need to know about exporting and trade?
Everything has to address the fact that product is going to a foreign market. Your ability to make mistakes is reduced to zero. Any mistake can cost you your entire market.
EDC resources to help you export
What is one characteristic that you believe every exporter should possess?
Besides complete commitment, good people. I find that Canadian exporters put their weakest people on export markets and it should be the opposite; you should put your best.
What was your first export sale?
It was five months after our complete re-engineering, to a customer in Louisiana – a local developer and the largest PV installer in that state. It wasn’t a big sale, but it has since become a very large customer.
How did that first export opportunity arise?
We made 20 to 30 outbound sales calls every day for five months. We had lists with contacts and we were trying to get meetings, visits, anything. It was a very grass roots approach to initiate business. It was hard. We were committed.
How has the trading world changed since you started in business?
Since 2014, there have been elections in the U.S. and Canada, and both have impacted us, but much of the impacts are yet to be determined. They have created unknowns where it’s difficult to plan. If you don’t know what the future looks like, it’s difficult.
Are there any supply chain anecdotes you could share?
Because we’re in a price-sensitive business, incredibly strong procurement people have been a big contribution to our success. We’ve always sourced materials and buyers throughout the world.
What excites you about exporting and where do you see the most opportunities?
Endless growth. It’s a wide, wide world out there. When you think and act like an exporter, there are endless opportunities. I watched IMAX go from a small Canadian company to a global giant. There is opportunity in any company.
Photo credit: Drew Worden from WORDENDISPLAYS.