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Lighting manufacturer details opportunities, challenges in growing business internationally

By Bridget McCrea

With domestic business stagnating and – in some cases – shrinking, the lure of the global business environment is hard for many electrical distributors to ignore. As the U.S. economy tries to pull itself out of the doldrums, some overseas markets are on growth spurts and in need of products and services that can support that expansion.

As a  manufacturer of low voltage lighting products, including fiber optics, track and spots, light strips, and downlights, San Antonio, Texas-based Lucifer Lighting, started looking past its domestic borders several years ago. Over time, the company expanded its distribution footprint by developing a new sales arm that serves customers in the U.S., Asia, Europe, and Latin America. This year the manufacturer added the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Germany, and Sweden to its international lineup.  

Spearheading Lucifer Lighting’s global efforts is Alexandra Mathews, vice president of international sales and marketing. She says the company started up 30 years ago with a focus on importing European architectural lighting to sell in the U.S. That model morphed over the last three decades and today Lucifer Lighting makes its own products and sells them worldwide.

Early Global Roots

Mathews credits the manufacturer’s early experiences in the global market – long before the Internet came along and eliminated age-old trade barriers – with helping to stoke Lucifer Lighting’s current international initiatives. “Because our roots started with European products, we’ve always had the mindset of working internationally,” says Mathews, who joined the company six years ago with the intent of transforming that mindset into “real, overseas growth.”

Lucifer Lighting’s international ambitions were quickly thwarted by the myriad challenges that come up when companies decide to do business outside of U.S. borders. “We didn’t realize all of the nuances, details, and specificities required for a lighting company that wants to export,” says Mathews. For example, all products had to include metric specifications (in addition to UL listings) and follow CE marking guidelines. “We also had to know the IP rating for all products,” says Mathews, “and understand all of the electrical current standards and other idiosyncrasies of the various countries we wanted to sell into.”

There were also distribution challenges to contend with. Import duties and rules varied from country to country, for example, and long delivery times caused some problems with Lucifer Lighting’s initial orders. “Different parts of the world don’t have the patience for shipping from the U.S. and didn’t understand why we couldn’t move product faster,” says Mathews. The company circumvented that issue by keeping “a fair amount of stock” in the UK, Singapore, Hong Kong, and India. That allows Lucifer Lighting to fulfill faster than it would if the orders were coming directly from its Texas plant.

Translation of technical and marketing literature was another requirement that the manufacturer grappled with, particularly when certain words didn’t translate well into the target country’s language. Even simple words like “fixture,” for example, don’t necessarily have the same meaning across multiple languages. “Overseas you would say ‘fitting’ in most countries – not ‘fixture,’” says Mathews. “Use the word fixture and someone might think you’re talking about a bathroom faucet.”

Researching the Competition

One of the most important lessons that Mathews has learned during her tenure as an international marketing specialist is that domestic competitors and global competitors are not one and the same. “It’s a completely different playing field,” she says, “that’s filled with cultural differences not only between the U.S. and each target country, and also between the countries themselves.”

In many emerging countries – such as those in Latin America, for example – project owners get involved in the lighting selection process. In the U.S. on the other hand, the hired design team typically manages that aspect of the project. “There are definitely some layers of complexity to consider when you start dealing with these situations,” says Mathews, “and trying to figure out the most effective international business strategy.”

Distributors face similar challenges on the global front, says Mathews, and must take the time to address all certification, documents, and logistics issues before sealing up those containers and sending them off to foreign countries. Finding business partners who are “on the ground” in those countries and then forming strong relationships with them is critical and can mean the difference between a smooth exporting process and one that’s fraught with obstacles.

“Definitely form those alliances with local operators who can help you jump through the hoops and address the nuances of working in their respective countries,” says Mathews, who has yet to see any American electrical distributors making significant inroads in the international market.

“We get requests to quote international jobs but we haven’t supplied any major project volume overseas through a U.S. distributor,” Mathews adds. “In most case, I suspect it’s because the distributors didn’t have the local support necessary to see the project through.”

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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