A Different Way to Go Global: Skip the Tradeshows

As one exporting firm discovered, sometimes the best way to win international clients is to start with who you know at home

Written by John Lorinc

For B2B firms selling services to larger corporations, the best customers are the ones whose businesses have become more profitable and productive since they became clients. If their endorsements can lead to bigger and better contracts with parent firms or international divisions, so much the better.

Montreal’s Prospero Learning Solutions, a 15-year-old corporate training company (ranked #297 on the 2013 PROFIT 500), had exactly this experience: one of the firm’s most transformative clients turned out to be the venerable Canadian gasoline retailer, Imperial Oil.

CEO and founder Lorne Novolker recalls that in 2002, Imperial brought in Prospero ($7 million in revenues in 2012) to help Imperial’s far-flung network of retail operators and support personnel learn a new enterprise software system. It was a custom training program, he says, and the client was very satisfied with the outcome.

Imperial Oil was not simply a big client. The company was also an entry point to ExxonMobil, the world’s largest energy company with 56,000 service stations—including those belonging to Imperial Oil—and hundreds of thousands of retail employees internationally. Even better, Prospero’s contact person at Imperial sat on an international committee of senior ExxonMobil regional managers. That group, in turn, had a mandate to implement a complex multi-national training project originating in the U.S. division that entailed a range of approaches, including e-learning, on-site coaching and mentoring exercises for individual retailers.

The committee gave the job of overseeing the massive project to Prospero’s contact person at Imperial, at least partially because of the success of Prospero’s work, says Novolker. But the ExxonMobil contract was more far reaching. Prospero needed to hire translators and customize training packages in accordance with the requirements of different regions. “We had to localize it.”

The moral of the story, observes Novolker, is that it’s critical to make your client look good within their organizations. “You obviously have to do a good job so you your client gets internal recognition,” he says. Even so, Prospero had to participate in a bidding process to win that global contract with ExxonMobil. “It wasn’t just handed to us. But the previous success [at Imperial] was the springboard.”

In many ways, this sort of growth trajectory can unfold more predictably, and possibly more quickly, than a more conventional foray into international markets that involve the familiar cycle of trade shows, cold-calling, and targeted marketing efforts in untested areas.

Prospero learned that lesson the hard way. About nine years ago, as a young and ambitious firm, it decided to forge a U.S. presence. The company’s principals attended countless trade shows to generate brand awareness, and even signed up for a few trade missions organized by Canadian consulates in Boston and Washington D.C. Targeting government contracts, Novolker’s team looked into obtaining U.S. security clearances and getting Prospero listed on a registry of approved suppliers. The company even hired a U.S. sales rep to help them develop a client base in the Boston area.

The result? Not even a nibble. “We realized it was a much bigger beast than we were willing to tackle,” reflects Novolker. Prospero decided to pull back just as the 2008 recession was hitting and focus on establishing a U.S. presence from Montreal by building on an existing client base.

Today, the company’s client list includes several large Canadian financial institutions, as well as multi-nationals like Pfizer, Walmart and Home Depot. With the benefit of hindsight, Novolker points out that for a business-to-business firm like his, many larger potential customers in the States may balk at the prospect of being the first customer, even if the supplier has a solid reputation in Canada. “Nobody wants to be your guinea pig,” he observes. “In many cases, your past experience will give other organizations comfort.”

Indeed, the company’s ability to scale up to take on assignments with multi-national clients, which had initially retained Prospero in their Canada division, sharply accelerated growth (the firm’s revenues increased 186% in 2012). Says Novolker, “The snowball keeps going downhill faster.”

In 2013, the snowball shows no sign of slowing down. Earlier this year, GP Strategies, a $400 million-a-year training and e-learning firm based in Maryland, snapped up a controlling stake in Prospero for an undisclosed amount.

Related: You Don’t Have to Travel Alone

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