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Exports are not enough!

Here's an article I wrote for the Dominion Post newspaper in August 2001, but I think it's still relevant today.

“Export or die!” We have heard that message so often - and for many companies, it is the right message. Getting the world to buy a New Zealand product or service is an important milestone for a developing business. Lots of successful exporters are needed for a healthy economy - but they are not enough. The world’s most successful companies do not just export globally - they operate globally. That means having sales, service, logistics, production and development operating around the world. Look at the world’s greatest companies. How many do things only at home to ship out to the rest of the world? I can only think of one - Boeing. The others made the leap from exporting to international operations. Our own Dairy Board/GlobalCo [Fonterra] has substantial and growing offshore development, procurement, manufacturing and logistics. More Kiwi companies need to recognise when to make that change.

Why? To minimise the cost of distance - freight, duties, foreign exchange risk and in-transit inventory; to reduce production costs, through greater volumes, lower material costs and lower manufacturing wages (an unpleasant reality); to get closer to customers for more efficient service and faster reaction to changing needs; to build critical mass for future investment; and to build credibility with large global customers.

I speak from personal experience. Deltec developed an advanced antenna technology for mobile phone networks - Teletilt - that enables network operators to adjust their cell coverage remotely and with improved signal quality. We began in New Zealand and Australia, explored SE Asia, and then expanded sales rapidly in China. Our products were key components of large infrastructure projects. We were the world leader in our niche. But as we grew and started to explore Europe and the Americas, our larger customers demanded the cost and service benefits of in-market operations. By mid-2000, we were getting a consistent message from global customers like Motorola and Nokia: “Set up full-scale sales, service, manufacturing and logistics in North America, Europe, China and Brazil. Do it now. Or don’t expect to get our business in future.”

The time had come to switch from a Kiwi exporter to a global business.

The capital requirements and the risks were large. Then the tech sector went into meltdown, and technology investors took fright. So we decided to sell. Andrew Corporation, a global competitor with complementary products and a similar vision for the future, recognised the value of Teletilt and our expertise. Our Wellington development facility will become their worldwide centre for developing advanced antenna systems. New Zealand will continue to play a key role in the technology. It won’t save the mainstream manufacturing, which would have gone to China eventually anyway, but we can reinvest in new opportunities.

My point is that New Zealand should not wistfully expect its companies to export everything from home. Global companies like Nokia, Vodafone, and Nestlé operate in many countries. The interesting thing is that large numbers of their high-value jobs are still at home - in development, marketing, and corporate administration. They are surrounded at home by a plethora of supporting organisations in banking, IT, law, accounting, advertising, travel, short-run early-stage manufacturing, research, education, etc. Together, they bring home huge revenue and profit streams.

If New Zealand wants a high-value economy, it needs more than just exporters. It needs global businesses that operate offshore in all facets of their business. New Zealand should encourage its businesses to invest offshore, not deride them for it. Without global operations, we won’t get a Kiwi Nokia or Vodafone. With global operations, we look like getting a Kiwi Nestlé. We could sure do with some more.

PS. At the HiTech2000 Awards, Deltec won the High Growth Company of the Year Award, the Investing in People Award and the Supreme Award. When the tech-wreck got even worse in 2002, Andrew’s NZ R&D centre went too, but that could happen under any owner, and only validates my argument that we need our own global players based here. The home R&D is usually the last to go.

First published 13 August 2001 in the Dominion Post.