Wearing borrowed clothes, armed with products emblazoned in Chinese with no brochure or business background, a young girl enters the prestigious Dorchester hotel.
She’s not fazed, however, because she’s there on the advice of her 94-year-old grandmother. ‘If you’re going to sell crap like that,’ granny had said, ‘sell it to the Dorchester, they’ve got fresh coffee and nice orange juice.’
Granny was right – the coffee was good – but so too was her sales pitch and the girl emerged into the light of Park Lane with her first order.
Seventeen years later in 2008 the girl – Lara Morgan – sold her business for £20.2m after building it into the toiletries supplier of choice to the world’s luxury hotels.
As daughter of a military man who moved the family all over the globe, Morgan grew up with a view of the world as a playground, which she admits helped her along in achieving exporting success.
But the other secrets of her success overseas were learned the hard way. She’s been stolen from, had a boat full of stock sink and her husband even sent an entire shipment of goods to the wrong country. But for all the challenges she’s faced globally, she ultimately conquered the exports game to huge benefit. Here’s what her journey can teach you about making it big abroad:
Names mean everything
Even if it involves supplying products or services for free, getting a stellar brand on your list of suppliers can be a major fillip in the early days of life as an exporter – or early days full stop, as
Morgan says: “If you can get a brand company in your sector early on you can open any door. Having the Dorchester as my first customer probably accelerated our potential 100 times over.
“So who’s on your list of attack? Who’s at the top that you should spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to bag?
“Even if you just supply cleaning products or something – anything for free – that you can say you’re a supplier to them.”
After bagging the Dorchester – a place Morgan she says she could only afford to stay at on the night she sold her business – the company went on to pick up major brands around the world.
From day one, though, she adopted the strategy of playing dumb. And it has certainly paid off.
She says: “The best sentence you can learn is ‘treat me like an idiot’.
“In every place you go, you’ve got to have the boldness to be less British and have the balls to look like a fool and ask stupid questions.
“Experts love to share their brilliance. I knew nothing about everyone when I started and I just did a lot of idiot talking and I kept working that idiot thing right the way through – in the City they treated me like an idiot and I probably made £4m more.
“So I can highly recommend the humility of just asking the question but the British just don’t do it enough. It isn’t always easy but it gives you an advantage like no other from an export point of view.”
Cheaters can prosper overseas
If you really want to strike it rich in a foreign field, it’s time to the throw the rule book out of the window on the way to the airport.
“Play the system,” says Morgan. “Everyone else is doing it except the British.
“You’ve got to break some rules if you want to be successful abroad.
“When we went to the Middle East, we employed a general manager who used to fly out of the country on the 89th day of every Visa period because I couldn’t be arsed to register a company until I knew it was making enough money.
“You don’t need to have a glossy great building with a huge sodding sign. You can have a shed or, in our case, a two-room flat.”
‘Sod the British’
Morgan’s firm has, over the years, recruited around 1,000 members of staff – many of which were based overseas.
First tip, she says, is to “sod the British”. But this isn’t some lament from a scorned tax exile or homesick expat. She refers to the importance getting the best local talent you can to support your export plan.
“Don’t employ the British, employ the best local person working for your biggest competitor in the market you’re going into and it doesn’t matter how much they cost because they are priceless to your growth potential.”
In one instance in Morgan’s early years in business, she paid a GM over £120k when she herself was taking just a £24k salary out of the business. Such sacrifices are essential, she says, if your business has truly international ambition.
Flowers, football tops and Marmite
Trusting a workforce that may be thousands of miles away from your desk can be difficult for business leaders to swallow. Gaining the trust of a globally dispersed team can be equally tricky without the vantage of regular face-to-face contact. Morgan’s secret is the miscellaneous goods she carries in her travel bag.
“I’m very pro people. I know it’s a radical British outlook and I even talk to my staff from time to time.
“I had a taxi guy in China and I found out he supported Manchester United so I bought him a Man Utd t-shirt and today, 11 years later, he still thinks I walk on water.”
“I also carry a jar of Marmite around with me on my travels for a girl in Barbados who gets down when she runs out. Even just roses on Valentine's Day or Easter eggs at Easter can make a big difference.
“Trust is where businesses fail because they’re not willing to take that leap of faith and employ people [overseas]. Ultimately if you treat people like human beings, why would they drive to work and think how they could screw you over? Trust people and they will help you build your business and introduce you to people in the local market.”
Lead by example
“I still turn right on aeroplanes [into economy class] and I have not turned left and paid for it yet. But I’ve also never had a word with my senior sales force about [why they should] turn right into economy. If you can have a fair system with your staff where there’s no bulls*t car parking space for the boss then you will build that trust.”
After enjoying global success with Pacific Direct, Lara Morgan now runs business advice and support firm Company Shortcut. She also author of More Balls Than Most and an ambassador for Santander’s Breakthrough programme.