An overseas gamble that paid off – establishing a business overseas – Entrepreneur’s Notebook – column

George Garber

Many would-be entrepreneurs dream of earning their grubstake by working overseas. And it’s possible: A friend of mine landed a job in Saudi Arabia at $160,000 a year, half of it tax-free. A year or two at a salary like that can give you a pretty good start of whatever you want to do next. But that road isn’t open to most of us. The high-paying jobs are few, and usually they’re available only to people with special skills.

I took a different route. I went overseas not to take a job but to start a business.

In the early ’80s I was working for an engineering firm in virginia. The firm was small but had carved out a unique niche for itself, helping contractors build extremely flat concrete floors — some for laboratories and television studios, but most for warehouses where forklifts would be used in narrow aisles.

I like my job. The pay was sufficient, and the owners treated me fine. But there was never any doubt that they were the owners and I was the employee. I would never own the business. I wanted more.

My opportunity came in 1983. The company had received a couple of inquiries from England, but the high cost of transatlantic air travel made it impractical for us to sell our consulting services there. The obvious answer was a branch office, but the owners couldn’t afford the high cost of a traditional overseas branch.

I offered them a solution. I would go to England at my own risk–for a piece of the action. I would contribute time and a willingness to work for nothing, at first. The owners would contribute some surplus equipment and a small sum of seed capital to cover early expenses, which turned out to be about $9,000. If I succeeded, a big share of the British profits would be mine. If I failed–well, we all know what happens when a business fails.

Because my incentives were better than those of the average salaried expatriate, I found ways to do things for a lot less money. Big companies hire lawyers for immigration paperwork, for example, but I discovered a category called “sole representative of a foreign company,” which got me into Britain with very little red tape. I prepared my own application.

Once there, I headed for a small town and rented a modest furnished house, which would serve as home and office for the following 18 months. To visit prospective clients I bought a secondhand station wagon for $2,200.

Some expatriates demand private schools for their children; my son and daughter signed up at the local public schools.

I knew I’d have no income until I found customers, so I wasted no time in getting to work. I had a few contacts resulting from the inquiries my U.S. employer had received from British firms, but I had no contracts. In my first year I put more than 30,000 miles on that old station wagon. As I learned the ways of the country, I got better at finding the people who needed my services.

The new business wasn’t wildly successful, but it prospered. Within a year, I had repaid the owners’ original investment and was drawing a salary. Within two years, I had set up a separate English company, with ownership split between me and the owners of the original U.S. company. In the new company’s first year (which started 19 months after my arrival in England), we earned a pre-tax profit of about $48,000 on turnover of about $215,000.

I’m happy with those results, but I don’t think the payoffs were all financial. I truly liked living in England. My family and I got to know a fascinating country that most Americans never even visit. And I had the satisfaction of starting a company and seeing it become an accepted, respectedpart of the British construction industry.

Now I’m starting a new business in the States, importing construction-testing instruments from England–and using, I hope, the business skills I learned abroad. Starting a business on my own overseas made me acquire a breadth of experience that I may naver have gained if I had stayed on someone else’s payroll in the U.S.

There was a lot of luck in what I did — as in most successful businesses. I was lucky to work for a company whose services were in demand overseas and whose owners were flexible enough to try an unconventional business arrangement. I was lucky, too, to set up in a country with a good business climate and a familiar language and culture.

Many small American companies would like to export their products but don’t quite know how to go about it. If you work for such a company, know something about its business, and are willing to promote its products in a foreign country, the chances are good that you can make a deal.

And if you know a foreign language–even at the highschool level–you have an advantage over most other Americans in any country where that language is spoken.

If you’re short on money but long on determination to have a business of your own, consider going overseas.

COPYRIGHT 1991 U.S. Chamber of Commerce

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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