5 LESSONS MILITARY VETERANS CAN TEACH YOU ABOUT EXPORTING
One of the first lessons Noah Glanville learned about selling overseas was to double check the shipping container specs.
“The first [shipment] to Australia, I got a quote for a 40-foot container. [The shipping company] said that 280 units would fit into the container, but it was only 240,” explains Glanville, founder and president of Pit Barrel Cooker Co., which manufactures a proprietary hanging meat smoker that offers “set-and-forget” cooking and is highly rated by barbecue aficionados. He says the mistake changed his shipping cost from $10 to $15 per unit, reducing the profit on his bare bones pricing.
“But unless it will flat out bankrupt me,” Glanville says, “I keep my word if it’s my mistake.”
A Marine corpsman combat and security veteran in Afghanistan and Iraq, Glanville takes the export market learning curve in stride. It turns out that everything in business is easier after getting attacked and coming under fire.
“There were times where I thought, ‘I’m dead.’ There was no way we were going to live through this—and there were a couple of days where that went on for eight hours straight, thinking I’m going to die any second. Other people around me were getting killed and … any second I’m going to catch it,” Glanville recalls. “There are not many days in this business that would be worse than some of those days in Iraq.”
That combat experience is paying off in the export business for Glanville, his wife and company co-founder Amber, and their employees. They started Pit Barrel Cooker Co. in 2010 and were in the black by year three, enjoying two- to three-times growth when comparing monthly sales to the previous years’ monthly totals. The company recently moved beyond spot shipping overseas and implemented full export programs to the Australian and UK markets. Glanville expects to expand throughout Europe, Southeast Asia and New Zealand soon.
According to a 2013 Small Business Administration Issue Brief, veterans account for about 9 percent of all business owners. Global Trade spoke with two other military veteran CEOs and an expert who helps vets start their own businesses, to discuss how military experience is a business benefit in global trade. Together with Glanville, they identified five traits learned from their service experience that have helped them succeed in business and exporting.
Complete the Mission
Steve Wilburn founded FirmGreen Energy, Inc. after working in large global companies Monsanto—where he was loaned to NASA for a while—and Allied Signal, taking a five-year hiatus in-between to care for his wife who was battling cancer. As FirmGreen’s chairman and CEO, Wilburn says it’s vital to research the needs of the clients when entering global markets, especially when competing with much bigger and better-known competitors. To win business, he works to understand local cultures and establish a personal relationship around both the business and social needs of his foreign clients. FirmGreen holds several patents and sells sustainable energy and alternative fuel solutions in Brazil and the Philippines, primarily through word-of-mouth references.
Severely wounded while fighting in Vietnam, Wilburn spent nine months recovering at a VA hospital and endured a dozen surgeries to his knee, shoulder and face. The recovery process, he says, afforded him a lot of time to think and ultimately define the problems he wanted to solve in the world. Such vision is key in business success and vital in global markets.
“I was always curious about energy,” Wilburn shares. He eventually earned a degree in chemical engineering and took continuing education courses in business. He says he benefitted from good mentors. In his early career he worked to figure out how to reduce energy consumption in wastewater plants and then switched to working with some of the earliest solar energy designs.
“I was able to get permitting in the 1970s for the then-new fluidized solar sites in San Francisco, home to the Sierra Club,” he says. “That was a difficult process, but it turned out to be a good source of renewable energy.”
According to Wilburn, it’s not enough to be aware of cultural differences between countries, but one must also identify with the client’s values. His business partners in Brazil, for instance, had a strong desire to improve the circumstances of its poorest citizens; Wilburn won his first contract over bigger and better-known companies by proposing a deal that gave back to the local community.
“That built trust that gave me a chance to get into another country,” he explains. “My clients know they are dealing with someone who has integrity because I want to help people, just the same as they do. They know now that I don’t quit, that I suit up and finish the project.”
Under the leadership of president and CEO Craig Carson, Jeco Plastics Products morphed into a small American company that figured out how to penetrate overseas markets. A West Point engineering graduate, Carson was Army Airborne stationed in Germany. He says that it’s not a good strategy to try to compete on price for products made locally in a foreign market. Rather, he recommends developing a product that features high-tech qualities to produce indirect savings, such as making line equipment more efficient. His specialty line of rugged plastic containers and pallets for the printing, automotive, warehousing and other industries offers thermoforming capabilities unique among North American producers. He says he spent five years knocking on doors in Germany, speaking fluent German to build progressive relationships needed to get his first sales. Today, Jeco sells into 25 countries, with its largest accounts in Germany, Japan and Mexico.
Carson advises that language is critical. Speaking English and German covers his bases in Europe, but in Japan he hired an interpreter who brings much more to the table than language.
“I depended on an older and more experienced translator. I made sure that he had status in the eyes of my customers,” Carson explains. “He coaches me about body language and protocols so important in the Japanese culture.”
Wilburn agrees. He says he had to learn local customs, cultures and to be respectful during his service in Vietnam—lessons which have served him well in his business. “It wasn’t just all shooting and destroying things—not everyone was the enemy,” he says. “We had to work at building relationships and try to not make the people any more miserable than they already were.”
Both Carson and Wilburn spoke of the help they found in the U.S. Commerce Department, local embassies and the Export-Import Bank of the United States. In the end, Carson says, the same key principle that applies in stateside business is important in the export market: “You have to have something different to offer, a value proposition for the customer.”
Ayse Oge stresses that veterans often have experience working in global markets. Oge owns international trade consultancy Ultimate Trade and is a speaker and author who served as senior international trade consultant at the Center for International Trade Development in Long Beach, California. Early in her career, she ran her own import/export business in high-end luxury food items between the U.S. and Europe. “Vets are comfortable working with different nationalities. They understand the world, they respect cultural differences and they often speak a second language,” she says.
According to Oge, such nuances are vital in dealing with foreign nationals and building overseas relationships. Her recently published book, World Smart Veterans, is based on her ongoing experience in advising veterans starting up businesses. “Veterans are natural team players and also have learned how to be great negotiators,” she adds.
EFFECTIVE DECISION MAKING
Trust Your Gut
Glanville of Pit Barrel Cooker says he learned to trust his instincts in combat, a trait vital to his business experience. He says that if he gets a call from someone overseas who claims to be an importer but refuses to pay the upfront $400 to get a sample shipped, or doesn’t seem to understand his product, or has to work through a few credit cards during a Skype call to find one that will accept the charge, he passes on the opportunity.
“You know, $400 is a cheap investment to decide if you want to go into a business relationship with someone,” he says, adding that he credits the one-time purchase cost back if it leads to a bigger order. “If they are super passionate (about the product) that gets my attention.”
Discipline and Honor
Carson recalls that, initially, he struggled a bit when he left the Army. “In the military, money does not have direct meaning. Our values revolved around issues of honor, loyalty and a sense of duty,” he explains. “In the civilian world, money governs all relationships.” He says this makes for more emphasis on short-term relationships, which was a big deal for the West Point graduate.
“Maintaining my ethics in the civilian world took some work,” he says. But it was an approach that he now believes his European clients value. For example, he says that the hierarchy in the military teaches a forced listening experience.
“Silence is okay in a military environment. And I learned that long spaces of silence and quiet are often okay in Europe and Japan too—you don’t have to feel compelled to speak,” he says. The use of humor in overseas markets could be very dicey, he adds; even the most innocent of joking around can be easily deemed inappropriate.
Military experience was a positive factor in Carson’s European and Japanese experiences. When he went on a planned trip to Europe right after 9/11, a young executive shook his hand to tell him, “We will never forget Normandy.”
“In Japan, a place we nuked, I had a (business) contemporary tell me over a mandatory one beer that he was just short of finishing his training to be a kamikaze pilot. He told me that the U.S. ending the war saved his life,” he recalls. “I wear my West Point ring because duty, honor and country are so positive in my mind. On balance, this has been helpful in my overseas business relationships.”
Oge says that veterans possess a wide range of remarkable leadership qualities that make them especially well suited to work in international markets.
“Veterans make effective decisions on the front line without any guidance,” she says. “They receive very different training in handling unstable and unexpected events.” She cites military support not just in combat and business, but in recently responding to civilian challenges such as a tsunami or Ebola outbreak.
Veterans have global insight and economic understanding, asserts Oge, who believes this makes them expert in dealing with shipping agents and distributors in foreign countries. And, she adds, veterans handle risk well. “As I learned in my own global trade experience, getting paid is a risk,” Oge says. “My global clients always wanted to know what I had that was new. Well, veterans handle change and uncertainty really well—this is all a perfect fit.”
She cites the experience of her father, a Turkish military man who quit the army and immigrated to the U.S. He went on to study management and started a business consulting company. Eventually, her father became a business consultant in the U.S dealing with the Turkish government.
“I learned my own business discipline from him,” says Oge.
Summing up his journey to global exporter, Glanville says that as difficult as it was, he would not be who he is today without his military experience.
“My military career … had a huge influence on who I am. Going through combat and losing people I knew really well and seeing a lot of people get hurt changes you,” Glanville reflects.
“I definitely have struggled with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and it’s something that has … given me my drive,” he adds. “That kind of experience creates an energy. If not dealt with or not channeled right, it gets negative really fast. How I chose to turn it into a positive was to go hell-bent on this business and work harder than anyone can imagine.” n