How should you think about your foreign endeavors in a time of economic upheaval? Economists tackle a question on global strategies for turbulent times.
Twenty percent of my business is international. Any advice?
Retreat! Run away! Yankee, go home!
Wait, scratch that. "It's time to retrench but not to retreat," says Attila Yaprak, a professor of international business at Wayne State University's School of Business Administration. Despite the apocalyptic pronouncements about many foreign economies -- and the understandable urge to pull back to safer shores -- he and other experts are counseling small companies to stand their ground intelligently.
Step one, they say, is to mitigate risk. "Insurance suddenly becomes a mighty attractive option," notes Michael R. Czinkota, a professor of marketing and international business at Georgetown University's Robert Emmett McDonough School of Business. Insuring your receivables, for instance, can guarantee that money will be flowing into your coffers -- even when your Malaysian customer can't come up with the 64,000 ringgit it owes you. Also, tighten up payment terms and run regular credit checks on even the most trusted international customers.
Step two: exploit opportunities. With asset prices in Asia in a nosedive, small companies looking to establish a physical beachhead there can now do so on the cheap. Nor has there ever been a better time to form a joint venture or strategic alliance abroad, says Farok J. Contractor, a professor of international business at Rutgers University. "Foreign firms want financial help, and they want credit," he says. "This is a great time to ask for tougher terms."
Perhaps the best international opportunity of the moment has nothing to do with exporting at all. "We've had a lot more companies looking to get into importing," says Jeffrey Meyer, who counsels many small companies as director for international trade programs in the College of Business and Administration at Wright State University, in Dayton. Thanks to depreciating currencies, many foreign goods can be had at a bargain, causing some exporters simply to reverse the flow of goods. "When you sell abroad," notes Czinkota, "what you get is not export expertise per se, but international marketing expertise. And you can apply that same experience to importing."
Of course, small companies are still especially vulnerable to the whiplash of foreign-currency fluctuations. When currencies abroad lose value, exporters are faced with the choice of raising their prices overseas to maintain their revenues or letting them drop to maintain market share. Deep-pocketed corporations will often take the market share route, but for resource-strapped businesses, Czinkota says, "the question very quickly becomes, How long can you hold your breath? A year? Three years?"
Then too, adds Yaprak, "larger companies are more likely to read possible political changes with greater sophistication." As foreign governments react to the crisis with policy measures -- import and export controls, raised tariffs, new rules on repatriation of earnings -- small companies, with fewer on-the-ground contacts, are more hard-pressed to anticipate and respond to those developments. All the more reason, says Meyer, to develop on-the-ground relationships now. "And now more than ever, you have to understand what your local customers' needs are," he adds. "If they're starting to think of your hand soap as a luxury good, you'd better start thinking about retargeting your product."
The last step, Meyer says, is not to panic. "It's a world of crises. It's about how to manage them when they hit," he says.