Hannah Kain, President and CEO of ALOM and 2nd Vice Chair of the WBENC Forum, reflects on her company’s global expansion — and her advice for other WBEs.
Going global is not for everyone.
For the first eight years of ALOM’s existence, our clients were perfectly happy just having us export their products. We would produce and ship out of California, and that was that. Yet I could see the writing on the wall as more of more of our US contracts converted to global contracts. If we could not provide our supply chain services in other regions and even locally in specific countries, it would severely impact our growth. I was not about to let that happen.
During the following 15 years, my frequent flyer balance skyrocketed. Global expansion requires commitment to be involved and – at least in a non-pandemic world – to be present. It is not so different from starting an entirely new company. It must all come together from customers, suppliers, staff, capital, culture to legal compliance and tax administration.
At the WBENC conferences, I would sit in on every single international session. I learned from the successes and failures of others. I found out which overseas options were available. I signed up as a member of WBENC’s sister organization WEConnect. I leveraged the experience of my contacts. I – gulp! – even asked for help. All of which allowed us to establish and grow our international business. Today, our overseas activities are managed out of two subsidiaries, and we operate out of 19 facilities globally, driving large revenue with major Fortune 100 clients.
Since ALOM started our global journey, international business has become easier with more powerful communications tools and a more global mindset. Yet, it has certainly also become more complex. Today, in an increasingly regulated world, global businesses face challenges from border crossings, increasingly intricate employment laws, political unrest and human rights violations, kidnappings, data and privacy laws, bank and currency regulations. For instance, opening an overseas bank account is next to impossible due to the bank regulations intended to eliminate money laundering. It is a struggle that I experienced recently. Data protection laws often add a layer of complexity and cost for those of us who are highly digitized.
Taking and giving should go hand-in-hand, and I became one of the WBEs speaking and working on programming to educate others about being global. As WBEs explore their international journeys, they can save time, headache and money by pulling on many resources. With government trade support, WEConnect insights, WBE peer support and resources from the corporations on the WBENC global committee, no WBE should feel alone on the journey. Yet, being in multiple countries is heavy lifting and it is a real investment.
Is global for you? Start with strategy – because this is a strategic decision that only you can make. There is certainly opportunity: 95% of the world’s purchasing power is located outside the US, often making the business case clear. Corporations are looking for suppliers that are ready to do business around the globe. But WBEs may also have capital constraint or frankly staffing constraints with a risk of being overextended. The opportunity cost may be too high. Build-it-and-they-will-come may be too expensive. Yet building a presence when needed may be too late.
Move onto tactics and explore the many options.
If there is one thing, I learned during my years leading the global team at the WBENC Forum, it is how resourceful WBEs are.
Some of us produce overseas and sell into the US market. Others produce in the US and sell to overseas. Others provide services globally. WBEs use partners, joint ventures, or other innovative approaches. Some go greenfield and gradually develop their global muscle.
Don’t do it alone. Instead, surround yourself with the WBEs who have the battle scars and willingness to share everything from dishonest employees, IP theft, government seizure, political unrest, to simple stupid mistakes.
Inertia is the enemy of innovation and improvement. Keep an open mind, explore opportunities and pull on the WBENC resources and your WBE sisters. Building a business is a journey, and that journey just may be global.