How a Career Change Led to a Successful Export Business in AfricaJune 21, 2013
This post contains external links. Please review our external linking policy.
Doug Barry is a Senior International Trade Specialist in the International Trade Administration’s Global Knowledge Center.
Perpetually suntanned and jovial, Leslie Smith operated a successful commercial landscaping business for several decades.
Then one day, he read an item in a local newsletter that caught his fancy. It was about exporting and how to do it.
Four years later, he was in Washington, DC to accept a presidential award for excellence in exporting. Leslie and his company, HERO Florida, export heavy machinery and spare parts to multiple markets in Africa, South America and Central America.
Here are some excerpts from a discussion I had with Leslie while he was in Washington:
Barry: How did you get started in exporting?
Smith: My son and I went to Export 101 put on by the Jacksonville, Fla. Port; the Chamber of Commerce; and the Department of Commerce.
We took the knowledge from the course there and applied it to mining equipment, which is what we were interested in and believed we could make a business out of. So we went to Las Vegas to the big mining show that happens every four years.
We decided to have a reception and invited all the commercial specialists from our embassies who were there with delegates from their countries. The delegates were buyers representing mining companies from around the world. And to our surprise 200 or 300 showed up, so it was really nice. And so we made a deal with an outfit there in Ghana and sold some equipment. And so that’s how we got started in the African market.
Barry: Why did you decide to go to the export course in the first place? You had a good business.
Smith: I don’t know. I just thought it was interesting. I read it in a business journal and I called my son into the office. “Carlton, this course on exporting, it looks interesting.” I always wanted to do something like that. I just thought it would be an opportunity to travel and spend time with my son who is also my business partner.
Barry: How many countries are you in now?
Smith: We’re in a bunch. I think probably 10, including Ghana, Nigeria on the west side, and then lots of South Africa – Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania and Namibia. Gosh, lots in that region.
Barry: Were you concerned about the risks of doing business in some parts of Africa?
Smith: Yeah, we really were. When we started we could do nothing more than cash and carry. People are not going to be able to open letters of credit and so forth, so it has to be cash and carry. And a lot of times they just don’t have the cash. So as things have progressed we’ve got help from the Export-Import Bank of the U.S., and we’re able to finance companies once they’re checked out through Ex-Im. So now we’re able to give companies terms.
Barry: In addition to Ex-Im Bank, did you get help from other government agencies and programs?
Smith: The Export Assistance Center of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the state of Florida through Enterprise Florida, those guys are great. I mean, they’re constantly – constantly bringing people to our office and trying to marry us with other people and inviting us to go on trade missions, and really doing their job. And if you’ve got a question, that’s where the support from the Commerce Department really comes in, because you can ask that question. And I would advise anyone that decides to get into the exporting business to use those resources because that’s what they’re there for.
Barry: So one aspect of the help you received was the International Buyer Program show in Las Vegas?
Smith: It’s the Mine Expo that only happens every four years. It’s the biggest in the world. The U.S. Commercial Service brings buyer delegations from many different countries that have mining equipment needs. In 2008, they had brought delegations from – I mean, you name the country; they were there. So it was fortunate for us.
Barry: What advice do you have for companies that aren’t exporting now?
Smith: It’s the American dream. It’s the entrepreneurial spirit. You go out there and you get it. I’ve always been in my own business, so it’s a lot of fun. And then I think my son thinks the same way, and his friends. If you want to travel and you want to do something exciting –I would take as many classes and talk to as many people like me as I could before I just jumped off the cliff. Otherwise, you could spend a lot of money and not go anywhere.
You need to do your homework. You need to use all the resources that the Commerce Department has to offer, because they have a lot. A lot. And maybe start out slow and go on some of these (Commerce Department or state government) trade missions and do it like that. And number one, have a good product—one that sells.