It’s all added up to a more robust, innovative and productive business that’s a model for other Canadian entrepreneurs to follow as they confront intensifying global competition.
“If you have just two or three customers, you’re vulnerable,” says Guillermo Alonso, Jr., who took over from his father as Alta’s president in 2006. “For us, being international has meant security. Our backlog of orders is healthy.”
Diversifying sources of income
Alta’s current success stands in contrast to the company’s fortunes just a few years ago. At the beginning of the decade, Alta faced big troubles.
The 9/11 attacks had just taken place, and the airline business was on life support. The economy was being wrenched by the dot-com stock collapse, and customers were becoming increasingly demanding.
The company had done well supplying Montreal-based aerospace concerns like Bombardier, CAE and Pratt & Whitney since Alonso’s father, Guillermo, Sr., founded it in 1979. But the sudden cascade of new challenges made change a necessity.
Alta started knocking on doors in the U.S. and in 2003, won its first big deal, a military contract. The U.S. now accounts for 50% of sales. Just as important, the sales helped recession-proof the company because they diversified Alta’s sources of income.
Alta’s experience reflects that of many small and medium-sized Canadian companies. Going international is often not just about expanding; it’s about survival. But how do you compete internationally? Is it even the right step?
Those dilemmas are top of mind for many business executives who approach Marie-Elaine Beaudoin, BDC Business Advisor, International Expansion, for assistance. “Many entrepreneurs see immense risks, and it makes them hesitate,” Beaudoin says. “Our job is to show them that yes, there are risks, but you can manage them.”
Beaudoin heads a support team that helps Canadian companies seeking to build their businesses internationally.
Before heading into international markets, Beaudoin says, companies must ensure their fundamentals are in order, in areas such as sales and marketing, innovation strategy and operational efficiency.
The last one is the most important, she says. “If you’re not competitive locally, it’s going to be hard to work internationally.”
That means investing to boost productivity even when things are tough, Beaudoin says.
She also encourages companies to look at countries beyond the U.S., including emerging markets, which have shown high rates of growth in the economic recovery.
Another potential market: Multinationals operating in Canada. Going global doesn’t necessarily require exporting directly to international markets, she says. It can also mean selling into global supply chains, much as Alta has done as a supplier to major Canadian aerospace concerns. This can eventually open doors to new markets where these multinationals operate.
More demanding customers
Back at Alta, Alonso and his family (his father is still involved in the business as chairman, while his sister Sonia is vice‑president of administration) realized they had to retool their business as they went international.
“Customers are more demanding. It used to be that quality and on-time delivery were the most important things in our industry,” Alonso says. “Today, quality and delivery are givens. If you don’t have those, you aren’t even selected. Now, it’s price, price, price. And you can’t reduce your price without changing the way you do things.”
Alta responded by focusing on adding value in the area where the company excelled—making landing gear. It dropped aircraft engines and fuselages from the product line-up.
“We want to become the best in the world at supplying landing gear parts.”
Alta also hired BDC Advisory Services to implement a lean manufacturing program, which aims to streamline production and improve international competitiveness with a just-in-time manufacturing process.
Global competitiveness basics
Before you start eyeing a lucrative new international market for your business, you need a plan. Poor planning and execution are the culprits in nearly three-quarters of failed corporate expansions.
Here are some important elements of a globalization plan.
You should be sure your fundamentals are in good shape and can be replicated from country to country before embarking on an international expansion. That means focusing on such things as your sales and marketing, supply chain, operational efficiency and innovation strategy. You also need to be sure you’ve got the financial capacity to stay the course until sales start rolling in.
Are you expanding as part of a carefully thought-out growth strategy—or just for growth’s sake? Good reasons for going global can include diversification, pursuing market leadership, acquiring complementary assets, developing new competitive advantages and creating synergies with current operations.
Entrepreneurs who successfully navigate international waters often have a specific mix of personal qualities—tenacity, ambition and an appetite for risk.
Often the first international venture doesn’t work. That can lead entrepreneurs to question their international ambitions. However, if they have the ambition, tenacity and a burning desire to learn from mistakes, they may succeed.