To succeed these days, you have to be creative, aggressive, a tad fearless, and go find new business — sometimes in scary new places. The salad days of sitting behind your desk and waiting for business to come to you are long gone. Your past achievements mean nothing to tomorrow's customers. You haven't earned the right to succeed simply because you've run a good, solid operation for the past 20 or 30 years.
But some people still don't get it.
Nothing exemplifies this more than an incident late last year at an American Mold Builders Association conference in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Sergio Sosa, former president of Anipac, Mexico's national plastics industry association, tag-teamed on a presentation with Jim Meinert, the veteran, internationally minded mold maker who now runs his own consulting firm. Sosa and Meinert presented freshly mined data demonstrating that Mexico has demand for $500 million a year of plastic molds, and has very little domestic mold-making capacity.
Translation: It's a market ripe for exports of the sorts of quality molds made in the United States and Canada.
When Sosa told conference attendees that Mexico is hungry for molds, a U.S. mold maker in the audience asked: “Why don't you come to Minnesota to buy your molds?” Sosa shot back: “Why don't you come to Mexico to sell them to us?”
At a time when U.S. mold makers (and many processors) are scrapping tooth and nail for meager margins and every sale, eager customers are sitting on the doorstep to the south.
Yes, they speak a different language. They use different money. They have a vastly different culture that can be intimidating and often frustrating. Their sense of time and deadlines varies drastically from that of most hard-charging Americans.
But Mexicans also are industrious, hard-working people who take pride in the products they make. They want quality materials, quality molds, quality processing equipment. They may not always be able to afford the best, but do not confuse that with a lack of interest. And when it comes to business they, like many in Asia and elsewhere, put far more stock in the value of trusting, long-term, personal relationships than do Americans, who will just as happily do a deal with a near stranger who has the right financing and credentials. Not so in Mexico.
That's why in a place like that it's essential to make personal contacts, get to know the right people, and allow the time to build relationships before expecting to win contracts. Friendships matter.
Take Chris Smith, for example. Smith is a sales engineer with Gauer Mold & Machine Co. — a modestly sized, long-standing maker of structural foam and injection tooling in Tallmadge, Ohio. He works for owner Bill Gauer, a personable, 76-year-old gentleman who can aptly be described as “old school” when it comes to his business approach. Gauer bought the shop in 1966 and has done no direct exporting. He has made a comfortable living within the U.S. borders, and he's reluctant to change now.
Smith said he had to twist his boss's arm to gain clearance to travel to the April 27-30 Plastimagen 2004 trade show in Mexico City, in search of new business. Despite some concern for his employee's safety, Gauer relented and let Smith go, in part because he was going under the wing of Meinert, who has been selling tooling in Mexico for three decades.
Gauer commented recently that another motivating factor was because “some of my neighbors are doing it successfully.” That said, he readily admits that “if there was enough work up here now, I probably wouldn't have done it.”
Meinert, president of Meinert Market Services LLC in Saukville, Wis., set up visits for Smith with longtime customers around Mexico City. That personal connection proved vital. An endorsement from Meinert not only opened the door, but meant immediate credibility for Smith, a rookie on his first trip to Mexico who came away thrilled and impressed.
“I did a year's worth of work in two days,” he said excitedly afterward. The acquaintances made and the groundwork laid in those visits, combined with walking the Plastimagen show floor, have planted the seeds for potentially important new business. “It's so important to know someone like Jim,” Smith said. “He led me in the right directions.”
Counseled by the old pro, Smith tempered his enthusiasm with the understanding that strong expressions of interest in Gauer's molds may not yield any deals in the foreseeable future.
“Jim warned me not to be disappointed if nothing happens,” Smith said. “They can get excited, and then wait another year.”
And, after all that, getting management on board still can be a challenge. Bill Gauer since has declined even to quote on one injection tooling job that Smith was soliciting down south, because it failed to meet certain aspects of his firm's policies. But Smith is sending sample parts to one enthusiastic Mexican structural foam molder, and he got another mold quote request the very first day of the show. He also identified a local engineer who could become Gauer's agent in Mexico City, just down the street from the interested customer. He considers the prospects bright.
Smith said he didn't go to Mexico looking for 30 new customers, but rather just a few who could become key new business partners.
Gauer acknowledges that Smith's experiences “were obviously positive,” and said that while it is “too new to know” what will come of the effort, his own perspective now is “not negative.”
While touring one injection molding plant, Smith and Meinert bumped into a small team of Portuguese mold makers in the firm's tooling room. They were bidding on the same job.
Funny, but it seems the Portuguese came to Mexico to try to sell their molds. They didn't wait for the Mexicans to come find them (and all their competitors) in Portugal.
Today's ultracompetitive business conditions and the increasingly global nature of markets mean some of the traditional, long-accepted ways of identifying and acting upon business opportunities have changed forever. Tomorrow's winners will change with them.
Robert Grace, editor and associate publisher of Plastics News, has covered numerous Plastimagen trade shows in Mexico City.