Civil engineering consultancy Alan White Design is shortlisted in this year's HSBC Scottish Export Awards in association with Scottish Enterprise. We spoke to them about carving a niche and dealing with 'the way business is done' in different countries across the world.
What does your company do?
Alan White Design is a civil engineering consultancy specialising in temporary works, access engineering and structural design. The practice provides design and checking services on a broad range of structures working with contractors in Scotland, the rest of the UK and worldwide. We have a diverse range of skills which enables us to provide our services to clients in many different industries including engineering, construction, scaffolding, manufacturing, events, and the oil & gas sector.
When was your company launched, who by and why?
Launched in 2008 by Alan White, a chartered civil engineer from Glasgow, the company was set up to provide a niche service within the engineering industry, becoming specialists in our field of temporary works, access engineering and structural design. We have a reputation for service excellence, reliability and safe practice which keeps our products and services in high demand and enables us establish our business within new markets.
Our company is now owned by Malachy Ryan, our managing director, who joined Alan a year after the company’s inception in 2009, as a design engineer. Alan remains a director of the company, working part time and providing guidance and assistance to our young workforce. The company has continued to expand, now comprising a workforce of 9 employees, with further recruitment planned this year due to operational demand.
How long has the company been exporting?
Our first customer was based in Yorkshire so our company was founded with the knowledge that there was a demand for our services in export markets. By developing our specialist skills, we carved our niche within the engineering industry, to ensure continued demand for our services, and our position has strengthened as our business has grown.
What do you currently export, and where to?
We export professional services, providing designs, design checks and calculations for temporary works, access engineering and structural designs. England is our largest export market. We also export to Europe, Australia, and Kazakhstan.
What motivated you to start selling overseas, and how long did it take?
Our founder Alan White brought 36 years of experience to the company. He is a chartered member of the Institute of Civil Engineers, a member of the Institution of Highways and Transportation, as well as a Chartered Professional Engineer with the Council of Engineers in Australia. With a large network of contacts and a unique service to offer, it was a natural step to begin trading in export markets where we believed we could make an impact. With our first customer being based in England, we gained early experience of what it takes to be successful in export markets and we have used this experience to strengthen our export strategy.
What is the easiest part of exporting?
Since we provide professional services, we don’t have any logistical or distribution challenges when delivering our product, which has contributed to our initial success in our export markets, and enables us to work with clients easily wherever they are located across the world. This also allows us to be innovative in the way we communicate with our clients, for example we use the latest file sharing software to exchange comments and designs with clients all over the world, no matter what time zone they are in, which means our clients can do business with us quickly and cheaply.
And the most challenging part?
Alan White Design is unique from other engineering consultancies because of the personal and tailored service we provide to our clients. We work with our clients rather than for them, ensuring our designs are buildable for engineers on site, and blend holistically with all other aspects of construction.
To do this, we invest in building strong relationships with our clients to fully understand their requirements. This approach can be very difficult when our clients are not within easy travelling distance, and so it can be challenging to maintain this level of service with clients in our export markets. However, we see this as an opportunity to be creative in our approach, and we continuously invest in new ways to build strong relationships with our clients in export markets and ensure they are satisfied with our service.
Have language barriers, currency changes, etiquette and culture ever caused you any difficulties? How did you overcome them?
Since we provide engineering services, our work always requires us to liaise with builders, contractors, other engineers, and project managers to ensure our product meets the client’s requirements. We learned early on that different countries have different expectations about how business should be done, including how and when payment should be made and who has responsibility for each part of the building process. We overcome this by contacting all the key players prior to commencing the design process to ensure we are conscious of the end to end process, and to set clear expectations for our clients and others. This ensures we can commence work with confidence that our designs will meet the client’s demand.
Did you get any support when you wanted to trade abroad? Who from, and was it helpful?
The majority of our export trade has been obtained through networking and word of mouth, and we find this to be an effective way of attracting new clients in export markets. More recently, our managing director attended a Market Visit in Dublin with support from Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Development International. This visit has proven to be very fruitful in helping us break into the Irish market, achieving several new appointments and invitations to tender for projects.
What advice would you give to someone just starting to explore overseas markets?
Alan White Design would advocate taking the time to assess what the strengths of your business are as these are your biggest assets. Using this information, it is easier to understand why clients and customers use your services or products, and using this foundation, you can strategize how best to sell your products, services, and business brand to your new market and to ensure you can deliver on the promises and guarantees you make.
From our experience, it is crucial for your business to make a great first impression in your new market as word of mouth can travel fast and if you play to your strengths you have the best chance of achieving success. Alan White Design has also had great success in asking current clients for referrals within new markets. This has the benefit of ensuring you target the right customer base and avoid spending precious time and resource in blanket marketing or advertising.
Where next? What markets are you looking into and where do you see the company in 5 years’ time?
Alan White Design continues to expand, and we expect to recruit several new colleagues over the next few years to meet the demand for our services. With the increase in resource and expertise we also hope to diversify our business, applying our skills in new industry sectors, as well as raising our profile and strengthening our position within our current markets.
We have identified South Africa, North America, and China as potential export markets where we believe our unique service offering can make an impact. In particular, we see potential to apply our expertise in the use of coal fired boilers and the wider oil & gas sectors which are of global significance in these markets. We will also continue to develop our colleagues to ensure they are industry leaders in their field, to promote cross-fertilisation of ideas to ensure our products are innovative and unique and ensure we are ready to meet the exporting challenges ahead.
Alan White Design have been shortlisted for micro exporter of the year at the HSBC Scottish Export Awards 2017 in association with Scottish Enterprise. Book your tickets now and join us to celebrate international trade.