This week, a look at Kiwi small business owners making inroads into the US.

Arjen Maarleveld is CEO of Vega, a Wellington-based company that produces navigation lights for marine authorities around the world, including the US Coast Guard.

What's the state of Vega's current business in the US?

Overall, we export 95 per cent of what we make, and 15-20 per cent of our revenue currently comes from the US market. Obviously the US Coast Guard is a key reference account for the kinds of products we make; there are 50,000 aids to navigation around the US that are managed by the US Coast Guard, and we're a supplier to them of navigational lights that they put along the coast and in places like lighthouses.

But the US Coast Guard is almost unique for us as a client in that we service them directly. In most cases in the US we work through channel partners, who have the relationships with the end customers - generally those running small harbours, marinas, or other areas of marine activity like ports.

How did the company get the US Coast Guard as a customer?

Advertisement

This is a pretty small industry, where everyone knows everyone else and Vega is reasonably well known in the community. My understanding is that when one of the current members of our board was previously in a sales role with the company he basically bowled up and asked them what they wanted.

He said 'we can do that', the company built it and they were happy with it. The rest is history. It wasn't any sophisticated marketing technique; it was showing up, listening to the customer and delivering what they asked for.

You recently appointed your first person on the ground in the US? Why?

It's actually the first person we've hired anywhere outside of New Zealand. Basically our strategy is based on that wild and crazy idea that if you spend more time with your customers and your partners - because you're closer to them - then you might sell more.

Vega has done well in the past just sitting back, taking orders and delivering great products so we think by being closer to the customers we'll have more quality conversations and a clearer idea of what the opportunities are. You're in a better position to be in the right place at the right time.

Part of it too is about defending our position, because everyone wants the US Coast Guard as a client. And although that employee is US based, his title is vice-president of business development for the Americas and Iberia, so he's doing business development for all of the Americas, as well as Spain and Portugal because he speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

COMING UP: A large proportion of Kiwi companies don't have a plan for exit or succession. Why is that - what are some of the barriers? And what have been the experiences of some small business owners who have actually made these kinds of plans? If you've got a story to tell, drop me a note.
How did you make that hire?

I was lucky. He's a Kiwi, and someone I'd worked with before at Tait Communications where he was the US-based vice-president of sales. He'd been responsible for Latin America, wanted to extend his experience in the US market and became available. The most important thing for us, though, is he's a very effective salesperson.

Advertisement

We're all very familiar with American culture in the form of movies and TV shows, but you don't necessarily get an insight from that into how people work and how they think. That's why you need to be there - to see for yourself what people's problems are and how you can solve them. Local presence is key.

What other learnings do you think have been key to Vega winning business in the US?

We're selling to government entities, because most of these products are purchased by local, state or federal government. Here in New Zealand, life is pretty simple in terms of government and we don't have too many layers.

But because the US is so big, there are a lot of different layers of government. It can be tempting just to focus on federal government, for example, but it does pay to analyse how the state, local and county levels also function to really understand where your opportunities might be.

You also have to take a long term approach. You need to have a really clear idea of what you want to achieve, and a strategy that first of all tests whether that's doable, and a willingness to learn and change if you realise your idea won't work. If you're going to fail, fail fast and try again.