Horizons: So you want to be an exporter

Export or die has been the cry of almost every British Government since the war, yet it seems that as a nation we are all ignorant about what exporting involves. To the perennial cocktail party question: 'What do you do?' the reply, 'I work in the export department' conjures up one of two equally erroneous images. Either the timid little clerk sifting through piles of paper in a dusty Dickensian office or the jet-setting suntanned glamour boy swanning round the world's best hotels.

Today a whole range of companies are involved in exporting. They vary from multi-nationals with large export departments to small businesses with no specialist expertise.

According to www.bestmoneymakingtips.com, which covers both export marketing and sales, the business is ultimately about people, but requires an understanding of the practices and procedures of exporting documentation and administration (a career in itself undertaken by experts who have trained for the Institute of Export's Diploma). All successful exporting depends on getting the paper-work right - if the paperwork on a deal is wrong, the company will lose money fast.

At the start of a career in export marketing you are likely to be involved in the leg work of getting to know a particular market. Much of the donkey work is done in Britain gathering information from sources such as government agencies and trade bodies.

It may then involve more research in the prospective overseas market, via the commercial section at the British Embassy, through local government departments and local contacts. Ideally, assessment of a market takes place well before any real sales effort, but many small companies find themselves jumping in with both feet.

This preliminary marketing is the weak spot of many British firms. Traditionally they have turned to exporting when things get difficult at home. Today international competition is intense. It is essential to give the client what he wants.

Getting that right is the job of the export marketing executive. He or she may also be responsible for examining ways of selling products in a particular market, looking at the options of appointing an agent, selling direct or establishing a manufacturing capacity.

The next stage involves direct contact with local businessmen. Once negotiations with clients or potential distributors are in view, members of the sales force are likely to be involved and possibly also the export director. Negotiations will cover terms and conditions, including methods of payment, financing, transport, etc, and the exporter needs to be well informed in all these areas in order to obtain the best deal.

In a small company the export department may be one person usually associated with UK sales and always overstretched - a kind of super person responsible for strategy and detail. In larger organizations with export departments, the roles of marketing and sales are likely to be separated.

Peter Lemagnen is a product manager within the export division of Wilkinson Sword. His career so far gives a typical picture of how to train for and work in an export department. Peter, now 28, is half French and always wanted to use his language ability.

He read his first degree at Bradford in European Industrial Studies, a language-based course that helped him to develop technical French with business and engineering options. After graduating he spent nine months as a production trainee, but seeing little future in traditional engineering he wanted to move into commercial work.

He enrolled for the two-year post graduate diploma in International Marketing at the Buckinghamshire College of Higher Education. Subsequently, he joined Wilkinson Sword as a marketing assistant in the export division working under the marketing manager. Peter undertook market research doing the foot slogging both in the UK and Europe. His French was essential in helping him to obtain detailed information from French and Belgian sources.

Since May, 1984, when he became product manager responsible for razors in specific markets, he uses his language less. His territory covers Scandinavia, the Middle East and Latin America. He is responsible for administration, including monitoring budget expenditure in 11 markets.

The part of the job Peter enjoys most is market planning, which involves developing the market, including product launches, and increasing sales of existing lines.

He does not travel much, just enough to keep him interested but not so much so as to damage his family life. He is in the Middle East once or twice a year for four weeks at a time and in Scandinavia four times a year for about a week's trip.

Peter does not consider this glamorous. When asked what Helsinki or Bahrain is like, he says: 'I really don't know. I'm in an office, an airport or a supermarket doing the store check. '

Despite this he does have to take into account the cultural differences, particularly as much of his job involves motivating distributors. It can be confusing - after an alcohol free trip in the Middle East he found himself in Scandinavia starting a business meeting at 9am with a 'ritual brandy'.

He finds export work fascinating and rewarding.

Surprisingly, opportunities for women in exporting are good, although it can be difficult working in Muslim countries. Judy Williams, 25, obtained her diploma in exporting marketing from Buckinghamshire College last summer. A language graduate from Swansea University, she landed a job as an international marketing executive at Case Communications Ltd. With no technical knowledge and little business experience, she is now training to undertake export sales in data communications.

Export sales people need greater product knowledge than their UK counterparts in easy reach of back-up from head office. Judy has been to France, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland. She now has her own sales territory, in French speaking Switzerland, and spends 50 to 70 per cent of her time there. At a starting salary in five figures and car, her future looks financially sound.

Although the work of the export department has traditionally been considered secondary to UK sales by many British companies, more and more organizations are seeking employers with specialist export skills. Norman Hoggard of the Institute of Export, says export departments are still often undervalued and under resourced, but this is changing.

To become expert takes hard won experience, but there are a number of undergraduate courses with export options that can help you set your foot on the ladder. Given the importance the Government claims to attach to exporting, it is surprising that there are only two post-graduate courses.

City University Business School offers a one-year course and Buckinghamshire a two-year course. The latter, perhaps a model for the establishment of courses elsewhere, offers a thorough grounding in export documentation and administration, financing overseas sales, international marketing, advertising and sales techniques as well as the cultural aspects of international negotiation.

Many language graduates are drawn to exporting in the hope of using their languages. But the graduates most in demand are from technical and engineering backgrounds, as companies often assume it is easier to teach language and business skills to a scientist, rather than highly technical product knowledge to a language specialist.