Companies (Almost) Without Borders

The need to stay ahead or on pace with the competition is driving most companies to go global. But the journey can be bumpy, say CFOs.

The global economy is changing and for businesses to stay competitive, they will have to enter new markets overseas and across the world, according to a panel of finance chiefs assembled Wednesday for a CFO RoundTable event on globalization.

To begin, though, companies have to define what global means to them, said the group of four CFOs. For CFO Richard Pham, his company, 1stdibs, an online luxury marketplace for rare and desirable objects, is “a global company by default,” he said. To buy and sell its products, the company requires a global community of customers, suppliers and infrastructure. “We don’t have a choice to be a local company,” he said. “We have to be a global company across borders.”

As an online company, 1stdibs could do a lot of work from the U.S., but it did, for example, need someone to vet the products. That meant hiring a local person in various markets.

Indeed, because each country market is different, companies need to “act global, think local,” said Sandra Clarke, CFO and vice president of finance at pharmaceutical company Daiichi Sankyo. The priorities in Germany are different from the ones in the U.S. and vastly different from those in China, said.

Becoming a viable global company requires knowing what you want from a market. Once that question is answered, companies can either find organizations that complement their business and acquire or merge with them, or build their brand organically through a greenfield approach.

For example, Clarke worked at a water company that wanted to expand its business into water treatment. “They thought they could take the expertise they had in the U.S. and populate other countries with those experts, to have water treatment all over the world,” she said. But the company wasn’t prepared for how different the geographic markets were. The company’s employees weren’t qualified to do the missionary work of teaching people in other countries about the product.

Although the beauty and grooming products Birchbox offers products from all over the world, the subscription service only recently started operating outside the U.S., expanding its presence to the U.K., Spain and France. The impetus for growth was to thwart copycats from taking over valuable markets in Europe, said CFO Michael Cohen.

To be a global competitor, Birchbox merged with an existing competitor that was copying the Birchbox model and had already established a footprint abroad. “The business model is simple, but execution was complex,” he said. “We had to get in front of [the target company] and get them to come work with us. We didn’t see anyone else coming up that gave us access to three different markets.”

For Birchbox, merging with the foreign competitor was about getting on the ground right away, he said. “M&A was the only way to get out in front of it.” But it wasn’t without risks. Birchbox had to ensure the existing team and new team had the same perspective of the business. In the beginning, the acquired company acted “more or less autonomously,” he said. Yet, the pendulum began to swing in the other direction, with the U.S. team getting involved. That stifled creativity, he said.

Cohen then set a clear vision for the entire team, giving the acquired  group control of a European market it was well-versed in. In addition, Cohen added another person to the European team that gave finance more visibility into what was going on.

Stuart Buglass, director of human capital of high-tech consulting company Nair & Co., warned that it can be hard to integrate operations across company cultures, and there are even certain areas “you can’t integrate,” he said. “If the whole success of the acquisition depends on integration, there’s a problem” Clarke said. Hiring a good country manager is critical to making things go smoother, Buglass added.

For companies to successfully enter into a foreign market, there should be a decent amount of due diligence. Don’t neglect exchange rates or transfer pricing either, said Clarke, who noted that she’s had more bad experiences than good when going global. The problem, she said, is that often the grand vision is more exciting than figuring out the tactics to get there. “If you’re not familiar with a particular market, you’ll get in trouble quickly,” she said.

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