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Q&A: Lessons from Livestock

Tony Clayton has run Clayton Agri-Marketing, a livestock exporter with seven employees in Jefferson City, Mo., for nearly 20 years. But his career in the livestock industry stretches back a lot further.

Clayton only opened his export business after spending nine years working for other companies, building contacts and learning the ropes of the industry. It was that experience that helped him establish his name and brand, and allowed him to build an international business that now ships livestock to 46 foreign countries in the global market.

Small business owners looking to export to South Korea or the Middle East can monitor preferred dollar exchange rates by signing up for email market-rate alerts from a trusted online foreign exchange provider, which offers low markups and complete transparency regarding the status of international payments.

Continuing education is a big part of exporting, and it can be valuable to network with people who face the same problems that you are facing.

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Clayton offers his expertise on exporting to foreign markets.

How did you decide to start your own livestock exporting business?

Clayton: I was working for a livestock export company in Illinois when they ran into financial trouble. We were exporting a lot of dairy cattle and swine to Mexico. Then in 1994, there was a sudden devaluation of the peso, and our business went from [making $1 million to $2 million in annual gross sales] a year to zero. When the peso devaluated, a Mexican customer could use 3 Pesos to buy $1 USD. Overnight, the Mexican customers were having to take 16 to 20 pesos to buy $1. Instantly our products became five to six times more expensive. It sent shockwaves through the industry, and it was a great lesson for me in why you need to be diverse in your markets.

At the time, I realized that I had a lot of my own industry contacts, and I had some clients encouraging me, so I decided to branch out on my own.

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How do you get started in new foreign markets?

Clayton: We begin by making sure our product fits the marketplace. We take trips, we talk to associations and consumers, and we build our network. We also meet with government officials to determine what documents and import permits we need to prove our animals have been tested and are free of disease.

Getting started in a new market takes time and patience. My feeling is that if I can make a sale within three years that's exceptional. And it's true. When I began this business, we started making in-roads in South Korea. It took time, but now we are the largest exporter of swine to that country. Today, we are looking at the Middle East. We made our first trip to Iraq in December to see what it will take to sell dairy cattle into the market, and we are beginning that process again.

Why did you choose Iraq?

Clayton:  When countries become politically stable, incomes start to increase and the quality [of] living becomes better. At this point, people buy better quality products and eat better.

What advice would you offer new export business owners?

Clayton: You have to have experience, you have to have contacts, and your exporting model needs to have a high rate of return because there are a lot of hoops to jump through. If you are just starting out, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Small Business Administration and industry associations can all give you advice and make introductions.

Even if you have experience, don't ever stop learning. Continuing education is a big part of exporting, and it can be valuable to network with people who face the same problems that you are facing. 

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