Any company that begins to trade abroad is buying into the idea that it can conquer brand new markets, but also that new risks are an inevitability. And although the risks are often worth taking, informed directors will evaluate the danger in order to be better prepared.
In love, as in business, distance makes things more complicated. However, in an increasingly globalised world, expanding your business activity into other countries remains essential – especially in an export-oriented country like Belgium. This strategic challenge demands an appropriate approach that will allow the company to move into new territory successfully. Whether internationalisation takes a physical or virtual form, a number of risks of a new type will join those you are already managing at local level, including hazards associated with transportation, exchange rate risks, poor knowledge of regional regulations, cultural or ethical "gaps", and difficulties arising from unpaid sums and recovering these abroad, etc. To minimise the impact on your business, take precautions and correctly signpost the pathway separating you from your international customers.
Where should you venture to?
If you have identified a particular continent or country of interest, you have presumably spotted obvious commercial benefits. You know your business and are convinced that this move can work well. But before you take the plunge, a step back is necessary so that you can analyse the country-related risks: from the geopolitical context (an embargo would be disastrous for your plans) to the political and socio-economic situation on the ground. It is not uncommon, for example, for elections to have a destabilising effect on the climate of a nation.
Do you have sufficient local knowledge?
This question may appear trivial at first, but culture and traditions have a major influence on the way trade is conducted – even in a globalised world. Beyond market expectations and the chances your product has of success, it is imperative to grasp the cultural differences that could have an impact on your business. A Japanese company does not take the same approach as its equivalent in Chile. Do not hesitate to recruit a trustworthy consultant who fully understands the region.
Have you planned for the worst?
This piece of advice is highly pertinent when the country in question uses a currency other than the euro because foreign exchange rates fluctuate continuously, with the result that you could be obliged to convert money according to less favourable terms than those initially expected. Adopt an effective foreign exchange policy (stabilise your profit margins, control your cash flow, mitigate potential adverse effects, etc.) and employ hedging techniques that best suit your situation.
How do you evaluate your international customers?
Once you have analysed the context, drop down a level to gauge the reliability of your customer in terms of their financial situation and history (e.g. of making payments), their degree of solvency, etc. While such research may not be simple, it is decisive in order to prevent payment defaults that can do enormous harm. If in doubt, take out an appropriate insurance policy to protect yourself. Paying for this could prevent you from becoming embroiled in perilous (not to mention costly) recovery action abroad. Should you end up in a crisis situation, you should ideally obtain local support in the country. Finally, be aware that in the EU, debt recovery is simplified by the European Payment Order procedure.
Have you adequately adapted the tools you use?
One of the greatest risks of international trade is transportation (loss, theft, accidents, seizures, contamination, etc.) in addition to customs formalities. Once dispatched, the goods are no longer within your control, and so you must ensure your carriers accept adequate liability. This means, for example, having suitable insurance cover, but also anticipating the multitude of procedures to be launched in any dispute. More generally, you will need to review and adapt the contracts you have with transport companies, as well as your international customers. Ensure you clearly set out the terms and conditions that apply (payment deadlines, exchange rates, compensation, etc.) and include realistic clauses that safeguard your own interests.
Not words, but actions: how can you realise your internationl project?
Gaining a foothold in a foreign country is no easy task, and some good advice alone will not suffice. Trade Development at BNP Paribas Fortis is the perfect partner to turn theory into practice!
Many companies want to try their luck outside our borders and gain a foothold in new markets. This is necessary not only to be able to continue to grow, but also to remain competitive. But if you don't know where to start, it's hard to put your money where your mouth is. How do you find the right market? How do you find prospects? How do you prepare the whole operation in all its aspects? What risks do you need to cover? And which partner can you trust? All important questions that can make or break your project. And this is how international ambitions are sometimes left on ice....
"We want to help companies achieve their international ambitions", says Rob van Veen, Head of Trade Development at BNP Paribas Fortis.
"We look at the local market into which the company wants to launch and make sure the underlying potential is sufficient." And so, the first step towards success is taken.
WHEN GOOD ADVICE IS NOT ENOUGH...
There's a deep gap between theory and practice that managers do not always dare to cross. It's essential to collect a lot of data and information, but this is certainly not enough. Talk must then be followed by action. Your growth project's first stone must be laid... preferably with the greatest possible chance of success and as few risks as possible. In such an adventure, (good) guidance is not a superfluous luxury. Even more reason to call on the support of Trade Development: a partner who can assist you with a wide range of solutions and help you establish a long-term strategic vision. In Belgium and beyond.
"In their project's first phase, companies often find a lot of information and support from the Belgian export promotion agencies", says Rob van Veen. "But they don't get all the practical answers they need to roll out their activities in a given country."
Given that growth prospects in Belgium are rather limited, companies must therefore look for international growth. But where? This is where the Trade Development team comes in. Your choice of target market is certainly crucial. A vague, poorly thought-out decision can have dramatic consequences: examples of failure abound – partly because companies don't understand the local 'culture'. Companies sometimes gravitate towards exotic markets because others have gone before them. But every international project is unique: does the market fit into your overall strategy? Are you aware of all the challenges that lie ahead (regulatory, commercial, etc.)?
"Let's take the example of a company that wants to set up in Brazil. Our first question is then: what activities have you already been carrying on in Europe? Might there be new, undiscovered opportunities there? For example, it's much easier for a company to set up in Poland than in Brazil, where taxes on imports are extremely high" , continues Rob van Veen.
HIGHLY NECESSARY 'LOCAL' CONTACT PERSONS
Your project has taken shape and you've determined your target market. The time has then come for Trade Development to roll out one of its greatest assets: access to a global network of competent and reliable partners.
"We introduce the client to local specialists who can support their project abroad from start to finish. One deals with the roll-out of activities, another specialises in legal and tax issues, and a third takes care of the administrative side of things. We prefer to work with small, local agencies, most of whom are long-term BNPPF network partners", says Rob van Veen.
These contact persons have a perfect knowledge of the national rules and customs and know how to adhere to that specific framework. The company therefore has the great advantage that it can benefit from such a skilled team: a win-win situation. "In addition, our permanent contact persons are evaluated by the client after each project. This way, we can guarantee the quality of our services!"
BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS: Save TIME AND gain EFFICIENCY
Are you looking for an effective distributor or a reliable representative? An ideal on-site supplier? Do you want to determine these contacts' actual potential or get to know possible new partners? Not easy for a company…
"Most of them are looking for a white knight. Our trade developers draw up realistic selection criteria in consultation with the client. They carry out a financial analysis of the commercial partners and check their technical baggage and their reputation", explains Rob van Veen.
First, a list of four or five serious and interested candidates is drawn up, and then the contact phase follows. "Our local contact introduces the candidates to the Belgian company to ensure that both parties are interested in a partnership. Once all these issues are clarified, the relationships can be rapidly explored in depth."
SUCCESS IN THE FIELD
Every target market has its problems and risks: from the language to cultural and commercial differences. Very specific problems that are often difficult to solve from Belgium, especially in the post-COVID-19 era. Hence the importance of being surrounded by specialists who know the country like the back of their hand. Need an example? "To be able to supply retailers in the UK, you often need to be able to invoice at a local level", explains Rob van Veen. "Our trade developer can then act and take care of the local invoicing and accounting on the company's behalf at a fixed and transparent rate for each transaction. This is a simple initial structure that does not require major investments but is very interesting professionally." The client can naturally then seek its own local partner. "That too is a task they can leave to our contact person, who has the necessary experience to do so." Need another example? Russia, where everything takes a huge amount of time... Trade Development's network of experts can also speed things up considerably here and solve problems more quickly.
Who is the key partner in your international growth?
Your bank! In particular, the network of experts at BNP Paribas Fortis' Trade Development department. The missing link between your foreign ambitions and your growth project's success.
Conquering foreign markets raises new expectations within companies. Needs that go way beyond a bank's 'traditional' services... We at BNP Paribas Fortis have understood that well, and that's precisely why we established the Trade Development department. This department advises clients and provides them with a full range of support in their international ambitions. "A bank can provide practical assistance to companies' expansion projects abroad: it can open accounts, provide guarantees, underwrite cash flows, and more", says Rob van Veen, Head of Trade Development at BNP Paribas Fortis. "But that's not all clients need: they also expect their bank to think about strategy and to help them approach the market in an intelligent and efficient manner. And that's exactly what we do." What does that mean? The service provides unique and highly essential support – especially now against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis – for expansion beyond our national borders, reassuring business owners and connecting them to a global network of local experts or providing long-term follow-up.
KNOWN TERRAIN... EVEN ABROAD
A good example of this successful partnership between a company with international ambitions and the bank is the Besins Healthcare group, founded in 1885 by Abel Besins, and which has been expanding globally since the 1980s. Great ambitions, which the company fully embraces with BNP Paribas Fortis' sustainable support. "Once we've got new plans abroad, we first discuss them with our contact person at BNP Paribas Fortis", says Leslie Grunfeld, CEO of Besins Healthcare, which is currently active in over a hundred different markets, and has local branches in several of them. "Our treasurer will check whether the bank is present in the country in question or whether it has partnership links with local institutions." This approach means that the group never goes into a blind adventure, as it has a similar range of services throughout the world. "That's great! Especially when you consider that the local problems you have to solve can vary greatly from one country to another."
ACCESS TO A KNOWN AND RELIABLE NETWORK
One of the Trade Development team's biggest advantages is that it can provide companies with a real network of local specialists. Professionals for whom the target market holds no secrets. They know the reality of the country in question like the back of their hand and provide the company with support through all the local steps: from exploring business opportunities to bureaucratic formalities.
"Even in countries where BNP Paribas Fortis doesn't have branches, we were able to benefit from the bank's network, which made the establishment of local branches particularly smooth. We didn't have to start from scratch every time we went abroad: we had immediate access to a structured network and reliable banking partners. And that means huge time savings", Besins Healthcare's CEO emphasises.
THE HUMAN FACTOR
Personal contacts with preferred partners are of great importance in an international growth project. Not only to have reliable and proactive contacts, but also to gain access to useful information and to unlock new local opportunities. These 'local' contacts are usually long-term partners of the bank... a guarantee of reliability for the company that should not be underestimated. They are specialists with various skills and profiles – legal, business or administrative – who assist the company in question from start to finish. This includes assisting with setting up local establishments, starting up a new activity, recruiting staff (management, local contracts, etc.), setting up a new legal structure, seeking suitable suppliers and other partners (e.g. banks), responding to clients' needs (cash credit, leasing, fleet management, currency hedging, etc.) and offering them tailor-made solutions. And what happens when the company is 'launched'? Trade Development then remains on standby to continue the banking relationship and to closely monitor the client's evolution. For the long term!
A bank like BNP Paribas Fortis – through its Trade Development teams – is therefore the key partner for companies' international growth. And that goes way beyond simply offering financial services. It also provides:
- exploration of new markets and partners for the company. In this capacity, it can collaborate in determining the strategy at the source and opening the range of possible relationships on the ground as widely as possible;
- risk mitigation: the bank analyses and assists with the preparation of a realistic profile of the future partner (finances, real interest, reliability, reputation, etc.) and with reducing the margin of error;
- creation of ready-to-use solutions. In this regard, the bank is always available to listen to the client, anticipate their expectations and offer solutions adapted to their specific situation;
- acceleration of the foreign process to establish themselves in a market or gain a foothold there, thanks to local contacts with useful local knowledge and experience;
- facilitation of the whole process, making its extensive network available to rapidly put the company in question in contact with local partners, but also to manage or advance all kinds of situations;
- long-term support – Trade Development's experts closely monitor the company's international journey, on-site or remotely, and oversee the project's success.
Leverage 'your'network for your international growth
How do you launch yourself in foreign markets and increase your chances of success with as little risk and investment as possible? Thanks to a well-developed network that's worth its weight in gold...
International growth is essential for companies, not only for large groups but also for SMEs. A versatile strategic choice that makes every project a unique adventure... whether we're talking about 'normal' cooperation with partners abroad, about export or foreign establishments. But it's not that simple, as it's an equation with several variables. How do you keep all those variables under control? By seeking an answer to a whole series of questions, clearing up your doubts, analysing different parameters, exploring the terrain and forging partnerships. Consequently, you can use all the help you can get (and often specialised guidance, too). And you'll find that in a network. A well-developed, reliable and competent network. An ecosystem that helps you:
- cut distances and times;
- explore and confirm existing options;
- accelerate all processes;
- make everything a bit easier.
These are all tasks that only useful and reliable local contacts can guarantee you. However, building such a network beyond our national borders isn't so easy. It's therefore in your best interest to build on existing solutions that have already proved their worth.
PRESENCE OF 'PUBLIC' BODIES
Belgium is all too aware of the importance of good relational ties and therefore has an extensive diplomatic network: the Belgian chambers of commerce with representatives of the Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs and regional delegates linked to export support agencies (abroad). But the contacts alone are not enough... Companies can indeed find information and support during their project preparation, but not necessarily all the answers to realise their project and expand their activities in the country in question. So, a bank like BNP Paribas Fortis didn't just opt to set up its own 'ecosystem' for businesses, using the expertise of its Trade Development department, among others. This is a network of global experts who support the client from start to finish.
THE 'BILATERAL' CHAMBERS: ACROSS BORDERS
That's what the Belgian chambers of commerce abroad are called. Independent organisations that can be found (almost) anywhere in the world. Their mission? Share their experience and support Belgian companies with their establishment in 'their' country. They were set up on the initiative of local companies with a link to Belgium and have one common task: to strengthen our ties with a region or country. These 'bilateral' chambers of commerce are accredited, and this can count in terms of reliability. They also cooperate with the official network of representatives of Belgium abroad. But not only that... For some years now, BNP Paribas Fortis has been providing support – by joining – some ten such bilateral chambers: the Chinese, American, African, Indian and Arabian chambers of commerce, to name but a few. This is an additional benefit for the bank's customers, as it gives them access to a 'unique' forum of companies and prospects in a clearly defined market. And particularly useful for expanding your network and gaining as much useful information and experience as possible.
A UNIQUE MEETING AND SHARING PLACE
The bilateral chambers of commerce are extremely useful tools for companies seeking to gain an international foothold. They help make international expansion projects smoother and faster. But that isn't all they do. These independent organisations are also a meeting place for all companies involved in commercial exchanges between Belgium, China, the United States, Africa and India. All kinds of companies can be found here: large and small, Belgian and foreign, companies with a long history as well as newcomers. And not forgetting certain representatives of the public sector: staff from the Minister for Foreign Affairs' office, Flanders Investment & Trade, Hub.Brussels and AWEX (Walloon Export and Foreign Investment Agency). And of course, BNP Paribas Fortis!
This network therefore comprises all the important people and bodies you need to expand your commercial relations and boost your international growth. So, a bank also deserves a place in this ecosystem. As such, BNP Paribas Fortis has logically strengthened its position in this network by joining the boards of directors and various committees of the bilateral chambers and by actively participating in events and training courses. In this way, the people in charge of banking relationships also keep up to date with the latest developments and business practices in the countries concerned. Although the current situation doesn't exactly make things easier, the network's strength is often demonstrated by the events organised by the bilateral chambers with BNP Paribas Fortis' support. They are a unique opportunity to meet others, listen to carefully selected speakers and learn about topics that are important for your international expansion project.
Where will your 'international' roadmap take you?
Assessment? Check! Your strategy? All mapped out. You've also already determined your target market. But you've still got some way to go before you can cross borders... Some 'required stops'.
You're fully convinced of the benefits of internationalisation by now. You see it as an important lever for the growth of your business. But it's a process that doesn't happen overnight and is the result of a long decision-making process. You've carried out a preliminary assessment of your options before venturing into foreign markets. A checklist and initial indispensable considerations, so to speak, to find out whether the project was worthwhile. You then considered the choice of the most appropriate strategy for your business... You considered direct solutions such as e-commerce or commercial distribution. Or perhaps more sustainable establishment models, such as opening a branch or subsidiary, implementing synergies through a joint venture or a merger acquisition. This decision is based on a thorough analysis of the situation specific to your organisation. This approach often requires meticulous guidance. You will have also determined your target market during this process, which is a very important step. Your project's success now depends on the implementation of an action plan. And this phase inevitably brings with its new considerations and decisions...
NO SUCH THING AS ONE SIZE FITS ALL
In any case, your plan depends on your internationalisation strategy. The launch of an e-commerce platform or the choice of an intermediary imposes different requirements – in terms of due diligence obligations, financial resources or the definition of the target market, for example – than a merger acquisition. What's more, every merger-acquisition process is unique. What does this mean? That each adventure requires a tailor-made approach that considers the specific characteristics of your company, your products or services, your sector, your competitors, your added value, and more. Furthermore, the mapping of your international growth will be highly influenced by the characteristics of the target market. No magic formula then? Correct, but we do point out some common 'required stops' that deserve your attention.
1. The 'local' considerations
France is not Belgium. And Belgium is not Germany and certainly not Japan or Brazil. Each country has specific characteristics that shouldn't be taken lightly. It's more than 'folklore'! These are real 'keys' that you must assess correctly in order to make a difference. Numerous (internationally renowned) companies have come to grief while trying to do this. It's another commercial reality that can have a major impact on your action plan:
- Cultural codes and language
- Relationships with partners
- Corporate culture
- Consumer habits and expectations
- Do’s and don'ts
- Don't lose sight of the regulatory aspects: they're essential!
Note that a product that is successful in the domestic market will be perceived differently elsewhere. It will prompt you to take certain preliminary actions: call in experts from the country in question, carry out a more in-depth market study, participate in more local trade fairs, etc.
2. Adaptation of your commercial range
An important reflection that causes you to reassess a series of parameters:
From a commercial point of view: do your products and services meet the target group's specific needs? Does your range satisfy the previously identified needs? Is it sufficiently appealing? How will you position yourself? Does the quality meet the local standards? And so on.
From a legal point of view: the key question is whether you comply with the local market's regulatory or administrative requirements. Do you need special certifications? Do you have to comply with specific technical obligations? And so on.
You must answer these questions to determine whether your market access strategy is ready in all respects: marketing and communication, value proposition, distribution methods, logistics chains, payment methods, etc. Not to mention your pricing policy. It may show that you need to make some adjustments at the production, distribution or commercial level.
3. Choice of partner
This isn't an easy task. Whatever your internationalisation project, this point plays a key role. You therefore need to set very clear objectives, missions and criteria that will serve as a guide to identify, prequalify and select the best local partners. The risk – and therefore the importance – of this approach is even greater in the case of a merger acquisition. A long-lasting marriage that must not fail... You will therefore need resources and time to complete your due diligence process.
4. You still have a way to go...
The following steps are no less important. We can give you the following tips in the meantime:
- Carryout a thorough risk analysis.
- Prepare a budget for your expansion project and ensure you work out several scenarios, because you can always come up against surprises. Consider the fiscal context and the local market's specifications (infrastructure costs, employment costs, etc.).
- Plan distribution and transport circuits.
- Prepare a detailed schedule for your project's roll-out.