Display at The King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy
Tom Foster, head of operations at Leach Inspire talks about the importance of getting to know the country you want to do business in, and its culture.
What does your company do?
We specialise in the creation, production and installation of innovative graphic display solutions, for visitor environments in the heritage sector.
When was your company launched, who by and why?
Leach, as an organisation, began life as a one-man photographic studio in 1891. More than 125 years later, the business has a global reputation for displays that deliver a wow factor.
As a group, we work in retail, brand, heritage, interior and event environments, to name just a few, but the priority is always the same – to maximise the customer experience.
How long has the company been exporting?
We started exporting in 1999.
What do you currently export, and where to?
We’re a turnkey provider of large format graphics installations, which means we export various bespoke display products as well as our project management and installation services.
Our first overseas project was for a museum in Saudi Arabia, but since then we’ve worked in many countries in the Middle East, as well as Nigeria, Russia and various parts of Europe.
What motivated you to start selling overseas, and how long did it take?
Our transition to working with overseas clients, as well as domestic ones, was actually demand-driven.
The UK heritage sector is widely respected for its thinking and maturity, not least because of our many prestigious visitor attractions including the Victoria and Albert Museum, Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. And, because Leach is the UK’s most comprehensive turnkey provider of heritage graphic display projects, we’re in a strong position to collaborate with clients in other parts of the world, who want to take their visitor experiences to the next level.
Making the first international project a reality, probably took about 6 months.
What is the easiest part of exporting?
In all honesty, it’s far from straightforward, certainly when it comes to what we do, because every project is bespoke.
For example, when we worked for The King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A.CARE) in Riyadh, as part of an initiative to spearhead sustainable development in Saudi Arabia, we produced an incredible 20m version of the Qur’an, applied to the gallery wall using gold leaf!
Probably the easiest bit is turning a complex vision into a reality – that’s our job irrespective of location! Then the challenges begin.
And the most challenging part?
Everything we produce is made to order and usually extremely varied, from one assignment to the next. That means different crates, with different harmonisation codes, for different items going to different countries. Attention to detail and meticulous organisation is crucial. We’re often exporting hazardous chemicals too – including inks, solvents and hardeners for on-site screen printing – which can be tricky when it comes to customs officials!
Have language barriers, currency changes, etiquette and culture ever caused you any difficulties? How did you overcome them?
Respecting different cultures is actually something we find less difficult. We’re all extremely customer-focused, so finding ways to build a rapport with clients, irrespective of geography, is usually one of our first objectives.
Before we start working in a new location, we therefore, go to great lengths to learn about any cultural nuances, and we ensure that colleagues who haven’t visited that destination before take their time to understand the etiquette that is expected of them. From some language basics, to ‘dos and don’ts’ in meetings or their personal time, it all matters.
We acknowledge that sometimes the smallest ignorance can have the most negative impact on a relationship. So, because our projects often last several months, we do everything we can to get them off to the strongest possible start.
One of the biggest difficulties comes when we’re working in Islamic countries during Ramadan. When we were supporting the National Museum of Oman, for example, the locals didn’t work full days – and some of them were away from site completely during this period – but we still had a job to do. This wasn’t easy in 40° heat with no access to food and drink. But as is often the case, we were able to establish an agreement of mutual respect. We recognised the importance of their beliefs and they showed their discretion when we needed to take a private refreshment break.
Did you get any support when you wanted to trade abroad? Who from, and was it helpful?
Often, the onus is on us to make the projects possible, learn what we need to do procedurally and ensure we comply with regulatory and cultural practices. Collaborating with other third parties, such as the main contractors on overseas assignments, can prove helpful from a knowledge transfer perspective.
We’ve also recently been approached by the West Yorkshire Department for Trade & Industry to explore how we can export more widely into the Middle East, so watch this space to see what comes of those discussions.
What advice would you give to someone just starting to explore overseas markets?
Don’t be scared. Yes, it feels like a constant learning curve, with different rules and regulations to uncover and follow, but so many elements of business are difficult, in truth, even when working in the UK alone. It’s how you tackle the challenges that matters, irrespective of location.
There is a phenomenal amount of untapped opportunities, beyond our own shores, and we’ve certainly evolved as an organisation – on so many levels – by pursuing just some of them.
Where next? What markets are you looking into and where do you see the company in 5 years’ time?
We’re already treading into wider parts of Asia, as many heritage organisations in this part of the world have extremely high-quality demands for their visitor environments. We’re working on an exciting project for New York’s fashion industry too, which has got many of our colleagues pretty excited! I hope there’ll be more work to follow in the US.
There’s also a lot going on closer to home in Europe – this has long been a ‘closed shop’ with many clients choosing to hire more local support, but this is slowly changing.
In five years’ time I don’t think it will just be our geographical spread that has evolved. Demand is rising from clients in different sectors, from high-end hotels to malls, airport lounges and other indoor/outdoor experience destinations. Their briefs are naturally very different, from project to project, but one thing remains a constant – they want visitors to feel inspired and more connected with their surroundings, and that’s right up our street!
Nominations are now open for the PD Ports Northern Powerhouse Export Awards in association with HSBC and the Department for International Trade.
The international trade campaign seeks to recognise the most entrepreneurial exporters from across the North of England.
For more info and to submit your nomination visit www.northernexportawards.co.uk.
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