There can surely be nothing more exciting for an entrepreneur than taking his or her business overseas for the first time. It’s an opportunity to make a mark on the global stage and generate a healthy profit in the process. However, with a foreign foray also comes a multitude of challenges. Convincing new audiences to part with their cash for your product or service is one thing, but the very reality of managing a company that operates in different corners of the globe presents a logistical nightmare. The ability to overcome these can mark the difference between success and failure.
For Maviga, the Kent-based bean and pulse trader, being global is part of its DNA. “It is a very international business,” says Andrew Cooke, the firm’s chief financial officer. “We source beans and pulses from about 20 or 30 countries worldwide and supply to about 80.”
Maviga was founded in 1994 by Marcus Coles when he bought the UK arm of American packaged food giant ConAgra for £1. He was then joined by former ConAgra colleagues Mike Quann and Christian Lude, who established Maviga offices in the US and Switzerland respectively. Having regularly added new territories ever since, it now boasts a very strong presence in Africa where it has started numerous procurement operations.
Engrained into the Maviga business model is a strategy of hiring ‘locally’ in every single territory. Initially, this was a natural by-product of its partners happening to be from the USA, Canada, and Switzerland. As the company shifted its attention to Africa, it had a decision to make. It turned out to be a fairly easy one. Maviga may not have gotten very far without engaging and recruiting from local communities, explains Cooke. “It’s an essential part of working in those places,” he says.
Yet the people who head up Maviga’s African operations aren’t ‘local’ in the strictest sense. “We do use local labour in our warehouses but the cores of our teams in those locations are actually ex-pat Indian nationals,” says Cooke. “There is a significant body of ex-pat Indians operating all over Africa.”
These ex-pats have nevertheless been an invaluable part of Maviga’s progress thus far. For starters, they carry with them the local knowledge that allowed the company to make its mark in previously unchartered territories. “They were very well-versed with the local customs, the economies and how it works over there,” he says. “All around Africa, there are different languages and our guys on the ground will always have a decent working knowledge of whatever local language is there.”
They also possess another important attribute. “Many of our people come with a lot of energy,” he says. “By nature, anyone who is wanting to relocate and go to a different country at the start of their career has a lot of energy. They’re the kind of people we like very much at Maviga.”
It certainly wouldn’t have occurred to Maviga to do things any other way. “What we haven’t done anywhere is go and start cold,” Cooke adds. “That would be pretty impossible. I think you’d last five minutes if you tried to do that.”
Despite its global presence, Maviga only has 70 full-time staff on its books. This in itself has enabled the company to effectively tackle the challenges of having a diverse and scattered workforce. As indeed has maintaining a central operations base in Kent – a base which it has just invested heavily into extending.
“We have a nice blend in the company of having a big international network but actually a lot of the shipping, financing and accounting is done fairly centrally,” he adds. “That allows us to apply a consistent model of operation to pretty much all of our business.”
That extends to the hiring decisions made by managers in any country. “For those in more junior levels, our African managers have autonomy to hire those guys and deal with them,” Cooke continues. “If it is someone significant or in the admin management team, we will also ratify here and possibly even meet them if they are quite senior.”
Regus, the office space provider, adopts a similar approach to Maviga when it comes to recruitment. By the end of this year, the company will have more than 2,000 centres worldwide, many of which will be manned by natives. Such a strategy ties in with the standards that Regus customers expect in every single country.
“It is obviously attractive to local companies to know that a Regus centre might be part of a multinational chain, but equally that the people will understand their business requirements and will understand how to talk to them and their visitors,” says Celia Donne, vice president for global operations at Regus. “It has therefore benefitted us in all sorts of ways to hire locally.”
Regus’s local employees are often complemented by senior management that originate from elsewhere. This, Donne explains, is part and parcel of the company’s people management strategy. “The vast majority of our recruitment is local but there is also the opportunity for people to travel and work in different parts of the world,” she says. “For example, the country manager of China is actually German and we have got area directors from Germany in the US. The ability to be promoted within the structure but also to travel globally is a benefit for lots of people.”
Donne concludes with a word of warning for entrepreneurs eyeing up an overseas adventure. “Don’t rush into hiring lots of staff overseas until you are sure the market is there for that particular expansion,” she says. “It is very cheap to have a virtual office or small local presence just so that you are not over-extending yourself.”