Opening the Doors to International SalesDecember 7, 2011
Richard Brenner, chief executive officer of Amarr Garage Doors, a North Carolina–based manufacturer of garage door systems, tells how his company has devoted its resources over the past 20 years to developing an international mind set and thereby finding success in exporting.
Doug Barry is a senior international trade specialist in the Trade Information Center
Amarr Garage Doors, Inc., is a world leader in the design, manufacture, and distribution of door access systems for residential garages, warehouses, commercial buildings, and shopping malls. Founded by brothers Abe, Morris, and Herb Brenner in 1951, the company recorded sales in excess of $200 million in 2010, and employs more than 1,000 people at 70 locations worldwide. The company has two U.S. manufacturing facilities, in Lawrence, Kansas, and Mocksville, North Carolina, and also has a research and development facility at its headquarters in Winston-Salem.
As a business client of the International Trade Administration’s U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service (USFCS), Amarr has benefited from export counseling, market research, and business matchmaking offered by the USFCS to greatly expand its export sales. Recognition of this came in May 2011, when then–Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke presented Amarr with a prestigious Presidential “E” Award for Exports. The award is the highest recognition any U.S. company may receive for making a significant contribution to the expansion of U.S. exports.
Recently, Doug Barry of the Department of Commerce’s Trade Information Center spoke with Richard Brenner, the chief executive officer of Amarr Garage Doors, about the challenges and rewards of selling internationally.
Barry: What challenges did your company face getting into the international marketplace?
Brenner: The first was learning that a garage door for the United States is not the same as a garage door internationally. We had to customize our product to international specifications. Then there was the challenge of obtaining international certifications, particularly CE certification for Europe. We also had a challenge with language—things get lost in translation.
Barry: In what respect?
Brenner: When you’re working internationally, if your customer doesn’t speak English everything takes three times longer. You speak; it’s translated. They speak; it’s translated. So, just having the stamina to pursue negotiations is a big challenge.
Barry: Making and selling garage doors seems pretty straightforward. They go up and they go down. Is there more to the story?
Brenner: Absolutely. For one thing, you have to be willing to deal with the cultural values of your clients, wherever they may be. Recently, for example, I and some colleagues were meeting with a customer in Norway who wanted to treat us to something very special to eat—a sheep’s head! And after having to eat it, he insisted on showing us how the dish was prepared. I think we can leave it at that.
Barry: That doesn’t sound very appetizing. But throughout this exporting process you’ve had help from the Department of Commerce. Can you tell us about that?
Brenner: Alan Richel of the Houston Export Assistance Center [of the USFCS] has been very instrumental in helping us overcome barriers in certain markets where we needed help. Not only through connections, but by educating us—that is, our international sales team—about things we needed to know and do.
Barry: How many international markets are you actually in now?
Brenner: More than 40.
Barry: Was there a big difference between going from your first international market to additional ones?
Brenner: No, just a little bit. Once you understand the first one, it really helps you to get to the next one.
Barry: How long did it take to go from one market to many?
Brenner: More than 20 years. It takes time to build your brand and to build awareness of the fact that you are a company that thinks internationally, not just a domestic producer taking the random opportunity to make an international sale. We had to dedicate resources and time to that effort.
Barry: So how did you become an international-thinking organization?
Brenner: It’s a mindset, but it also was something that I was interested in. I thought it was important for our business. There are only 300 million people in the United States. There are a lot more potential consumers internationally. So, it’s just a matter of focus.
Barry: What’s your biggest overseas market now?
Brenner: The biggest market for garage doors outside of the United States is the European Union. But some of the more interesting markets have been in the Middle East and in the Far East.
Barry: When you say “interesting,” is it because you faced challenges in terms of selling, or the uses to which the doors were put?
Brenner: More the use. For example, going to China and seeing Western-style subdivisions where they were trying to replicate various styles of homes that you see here in the West—I just found that to be very, very amusing.
For More Information
Is your company thinking of expanding overseas? The network of more than 100 U.S. Export Assistance Centers (USEACs) located around the country can help. To locate the one nearest you, visit Export.gov, the U.S. government’s export portal. Aside from links to USEACs, the Web site also includes online tutorials, listings of upcoming trade events, and much more. Visit www.export.gov or call the Trade Information Center at 1-800-USA-TRAD(E) (1-800-872-8723).
Barry: Has exporting changed your approach to business? Has it had an effect on you as a person who’s taken a company international?
Brenner: Yes, definitely. Being an exporter has made us a better company domestically. By understanding what’s done internationally, I think that we’ve become better listeners to the needs of our domestic customers. And our international dealers have taught us things about what they see in their market that we’ve translated back into our domestic market. So it’s definitely broadened our scope.
Barry: Can you give me an example of something that you imported back into the United States that helped you be more competitive in all markets?
Brenner: Yes. For example, when we were going through our CE testing [for the European market], we learned some things about the wind-load rating of our doors. Since we do a lot of wind-load testing here in the United States already, we were able to bring back the knowledge that we gained from that process to reduce some costs and create a better product for the U.S. market. In this respect, exporting has been valuable for us on many levels.
Barry: If you had to speak to U.S. business owners who are either exporting just a little or not at all, what advice would you give them?
Brenner: I would say three things. First, dedicate your mind to the fact that this is something you actually want to be involved in. Second, dedicate your company’s resources in terms of people and money to that end. Third, get help from the U.S. Department of Commerce.