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Q&A: Finding Potential Customers Abroad

Stan Heitz began his career in the 1960s as a farmer raising purebred sheep. Over the years, he gained a reputation for raising quality livestock, and people began inquiring about purchasing the animals. In 1972, he sold his first overseas shipment of sheep to Mexico and international business steadily grew. By the early 1990s he was able to give up farming and focus entirely on livestock exports.

Today, Heitz is the president of Advance Genetic Exports, an international livestock export business in Lexington, Ill., which sources breeding stock from U.S. farms and manages all the testing, quarantines and shipping for an international clientele. He runs the company with his wife and daughter, and they employ four-to-five part-time employees when the need arises. The company specializes in sheep, cattle, goats and swine, although they will source almost any breed, Heitz says. They make between two and six global shipments per year, ranging in price from $150,000 to $2 million.

What is the biggest risk you’ve faced when doing business overseas?

Heitz:  Over the years, we’ve learned that while there are a tremendous number of people who will express interest in your product or service, a lot fewer of them have the capacity to pay. And you can’t determine that from an email or a conversation, especially if there is a language barrier.

Trade exhibitions are a great way for a small company to make connections and to get an idea of what commodities are in demand in different markets.

So, when we work with a customer, we define the specifications for what they want, then we set payment terms. We expect them to either make a direct payment via wire transfer before we send the animals, or we ask them to open an international letter of credit with a credible bank, which specifies what needs to be done to complete the transaction and guarantees the money is available for payment.

How do you find international clients for your business?

Heitz:  After the first sale in 1972, we did one or two sales a year from inquiries we received. But then in 1986, we attended an international trade show in Edmonton, Canada, and our exhibit was a huge success. There were a large number of international attendees and that’s when we started getting a lot of high-dollar orders.

Trade exhibitions are a great way for a small company to make connections and to get an idea of what commodities are in demand in different markets, and they continue to be where we get our biggest push for business.

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We still attend several shows every year, in Mexico, Brazil and parts of Asia. I’m also sending our company information to a show in Germany next month. Even though EU countries are not buyers of U.S. livestock, there will be people there from all over the world, so it’s a good opportunity for us to meet potential customers.

Trade shows can be expensive. How do you know which ones to attend?

Heitz:  The best place to get accurate information regarding trade shows/exhibitions for agricultural products is from the International Marketing Division of a state’s Department of Agriculture. If a person is looking at exporting non-agricultural commodities or products, then the state’s Department of Commerce could help. These state agencies are responsible for promoting products produced in their respective states. Many of them subsidize participation in both international and domestic trade shows. Most states must closely evaluate the effectiveness of participating in these shows due to budget limitations so they know which ones are the most effective.

Besides trade shows, how do you market your company to potential customers?

Heitz:  We have a website, which we use for promotion. But for us, the best tool is word-of-mouth recommendations. Our best asset is a satisfied customer who tells someone else about us. That’s how we have developed our business over the years.

We also rely a lot on face-to-face meetings. You can put anything on a website but you need that personal contact to build relationships with your international clients.

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