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As a general rule, I do not advise chief executives to model themselves on power-hungry dictators. But when it comes to international expansion, consider Napoleon Bonaparte and specifically his disastrous Russian campaign of 1812.

The French emperor was obliged to look east because his other options for expansion were limited (notably by British naval strength). But for all his leadership gifts, his plan was blighted by poor planning, insufficient buy-in from his troops, overconfidence and a stretched supply chain. The lessons of his Russian humiliation could equally apply to ill-judged foreign forays by UK companies.

This is not to deny the opportunities available. In April, an Economist magazine poll of economic forecasters put the average real growth in gross domestic product for the UK in 2012 at just 1.9 per cent – higher than the eurozone (1.7 per cent) but lower than Australia (3.8 per cent), the US (3.1 per cent) and Canada (2.9 per cent). Most of Asia is expected to keep growing at an average of 8 per cent a year. Given the uncertainties hanging over the UK economy, it would be irresponsible of senior managers not to look abroad to fulfil at least some of their growth targets.

Susie Andrade, managing director of the Channel Islands Skills Academy, a training and consultancy business, and a member of the Chartered Management Institute’s board, says: “We get so consumed with what’s happening at home that we forget to keep an eye on what our competitors are doing in international arenas. We can be a bit reactive, whereas our competitors are more proactive.”

Yet British corporate history is littered with companies that saw prizes glittering in the distance and then suffered embarrassment when the promise turned out to be illusory. Think of Marks and Spencer’s ill-judged expansion into the US in the 1980s, with its purchases of the Brooks Brothers clothing chain and Kings Super Markets. Both deals eventually had to be reversed.

Consider first whether your organisation has the necessary capabilities. Companies should already be investing in skills to prepare for global opportunities – languages, say, or legal know-how. But Jamie Lyons, a human resources manager who has worked with UK and international companies, says executives increasingly have such skills, or know where to find them. As crucial, he says, are “behavioural” skills and cultural knowledge.

Companies that slip up in global markets often put the wrong people in charge of expansion. They can be better off buying in a trusted, senior manager with local knowledge and global experience.

A pure export approach may sound like the simplest way to reap international opportunities. The UK sits in the optimal time zone to serve both Asia and the Americas. But even though the export route is well trodden, and bilateral trade associations and paid intermediaries exist to help, do not underestimate the management commitment required to make it work.

For those looking to put their brand directly into an overseas market, franchising may be an option. But that inevitably involves ceding some control over the brand and, self-evidently, sharing profit. Similar risks apply to joint ventures. They may be the only way to develop in some emerging markets, such as China, that often insist on local partnerships, but the give and take of the relationship needs to be closely monitored.

In other words, there is no substitute for being on the ground when carrying out expansion. Consider opening an office abroad to scout out opportunities and smooth over difficulties, or travel frequently yourself to your target market. Bear in mind, as Mr Lyons points out, the long list of country- or city-specific challenges that managers will not appreciate fully if they cannot see them first-hand: tax differences, local rules, availability of resources, supply-chain robustness, where to raise finance, and ethical questions.

Sometimes local knowledge can be hired – either on the ground or by tapping expatriates who have returned with experience of a specific market. It can also be acquired – lock, stock and contacts book – by buying an international rival.

Balfour Beatty, the UK’s largest infrastructure group, bought Parsons Brinckerhoff, a US consulting and engineering group, in 2009. The acquisition gave the UK company more ears to the ground in more places. Few mid-market UK companies would have $626m to spend on gaining market intelligence, but the principle outlined by Ian Tyler, chief executive of Balfour Beatty, remains valid: “The real trick for us is to be in a position to understand emerging trends and the way in which particular economies and political and social systems work from the inside out.”

Even so, mistakes will be made. B&Q, the do-it-yourself retailer owned by Kingfisher, which has abundant experience outside the UK, placed a big bet on Chinese buyers purchasing apartments as concrete shells, which they would decorate using products bought in B&Q’s chain of stores. But it reckoned without a central government effort to cool down the housing market, which froze residential property sales.

B&Q could not necessarily have predicted the government action, but probably expanded too far, too fast. It was able to retrench and adapt, but it took time.

Companies with fewer resources should take a final lesson in global expansion from Napoleon: if your foreign campaign looks truly doomed, know when to cut your losses.

The writer is the FT’s management editor

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