Trade secrets of an export champion

Written by Susanne Baillie

Don’t put geographic limits on your market — beyond Canada’s borders lies a world of clients-in-waiting. The trick is getting them to say “yes” to your company. One firm that’s getting it right is Wardrop Engineering Inc. In May, the Toronto-based engineering consultancy won top honors in the Market Expansion (Services) category at the annual Ontario Global Traders Awards.

The key to Wardrop’s export success lies with three Rs: referrals, relationships and research. “We understand what’s involved and we do the right things,” says Ernie Card, Wardrop’s chairman and CEO.

Founded in 1955, the firm provides engineering services such as designing new facilities or production lines, environmental consulting and IT automation, to blue-chip clients. With five Canadian offices, another in Minneapolis and three in Africa, 20% of its sales are generated by exports to more than 30 countries around the world.

Part of breaking into new markets is “pounding on pavement and knocking on doors,” says Card. Wardrop uses frequent exploratory marketing trips, such as networking at technical shows, conferences and other international business events, to help find new market opportunities.

“A lot of our international expansion is actually facilitated by our clients,” adds Card. “We rely heavily upon them to introduce us to their counterparts in other countries. [A referral] establishes the trust an international client needs to hire us. That’s why it’s important to provide good quality service.”

Since selling professional services is based more on trust and reputation than having the lowest price, explains Card, “the relationship with the client is much more important than it would be if you were selling tires or fridges.” For that reason, “the time to break into new markets, win new clients and start generating revenues generally takes longer than most people expect.”

Wardrop also places employees into new regions to research and become entrenched in the local business community. “We make sure we understand a market before we jump into it,” says Card. “We’re prepared to lose money on them for a year or more as we establish ourselves in that market, meet the clients and develop a reputation. We recognize that it requires an upfront investment to become established.”

With 400 employees and annual revenue of $40 million, Wardrop has doubled in size in the past five years. It plans to double sales again over the next four years by looking for larger projects and making acquisitions, says Card. “That’s a way of having more people, client relationships and capability all at the same time.”

© 2003 Susanne Baillie

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