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Corban & Blair broaden Australia-China business by selling back to China

Monday, December 02, 2013

Corban & Blair is the combined creativity and ingenuity of Gillian Corban & Amanda Blair. They began as a niche Australian designer stationery business in 1988. Over the past 25 years, they have evolved their products to include design solutions for corporate gifting and presentations. Items include folders, photo frames, leather journals, presentation boxes and covers, satchels and travel accessories.

Corban & Blair products are made in New Zealand, Australia and China. Their China manufacture began over 10 years ago, but it was in 2012 when they thought, 'why not sell our products into the Chinese market?’ I talked with Gillian recently about how they penetrated this highly competitive foreign market.

Pamela Young: Can you explain how this decision to sell back into China came about?

Gillian Corban: It has been an inspirational adventure learning to work in the Chinese market.

We had been manufacturing in China since about 2002 and travelled there twice each year. One day we realised there was a market in China and we had the contacts and product ideas to approach it.

The first challenge was to learn how to sell our design and product offerings in a country that can manufacture almost anything. We did this by going through the Australian companies we work with that have offices in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore. They were very generous and provided introductions for us.

Our first sales visit was a steep learning curve. Fifteen meetings later, we had observed how to communicate, witnessed various aspects of etiquette and learned the importance of knowing a few names of places and destinations in Chinese.

One and a half years later, we now visit 3-4 times a year and have made sales to Chinese based companies. Mostly we sell them what we manufacture in China because of freight costs.

Young: What were the first things you had to learn?

Corban: We quickly realised that it was important to study the market, learn about how China operates, get to know people and build allies.

We learned that our pitch had to be about quality, ideas and design, as well as our ability to provide ‘something extra’ - something with meaning. Fortunately, we have always valued design and quality production extremely highly, so we found this helped to attract the attention of the Chinese buyers. We discovered that the strength of our brand, which we had built over 25 years in this business, was well recognised and our reputation for doing what we say – on time, with quality and to budget – preceded us.

We know all cultures are different: people think differently and have different experiences. It is a very interesting journey as you also learn about yourself at the same time.

Young: How did you approach the differences in language and culture?

While we have dabbled with learning their language, we do not speak Mandarin. I wish we did, as it would be more respectful. In case language ever becomes an issue, we have a Chinese friend and associate Helena, who is fluent in Mandarin, understands Australian business culture and is ready to assist us whenever needed.

Young: What is the secret to your success so far?

Relationships are everything. We have worked hard and built trusted relations with our Chinese suppliers and customers, and our Australian contacts and everyone who promote us.

We have found it takes several visits to build up a relationship of understanding and respect with both customers and suppliers. However, with each trip we could see progress: this is rewarding and keeps us going.

Getting around much bigger cities can take time and little things can be a challenge. For example, you have to think ahead and get an address you are travelling to written in Chinese before you leave as well as well as the name of the building, in Chinese.

We always ensure we have appropriate products to take to the prospective customer: we take ideas that will inspire, as well as practical solutions for them to consider.

We found Australians living in China incredibly generous. They are on a frontier and they know the challenges and try to help you.

Young: What practical tips can you offer people heading up to China for the first time?

We have found that staying in the same hotel on each visit can minimise stress: knowing what is in the local area saves you time searching for things you may need.

A Pocket Wi-Fi with a data sim for the country is cost effective. We discovered this after a few very large mobile bills.

We always eat and enjoy the food with our suppliers. It is a very effective way to build a greater understanding of their culture and protocols and the relaxed conversation helps you to discover what is important to them.

Join the Australian “Asian” (most countries have them) Chambers of Commerce. We found them extremely supportive and useful.  On our last visit, they checked out each company we wanted to approach and then helped us arrange 17 meetings in four days, as well as suggestions for our next visit.

Having Asian employees in Australia also helps. We have had Vietnamese and Chinese employees. They helped us understand things from a different cultural perspective. They have mixed-culture friends and all their experiences add value to our business: the integration of cultures helps us know the Asian people and their cultures better and this prepares us for our trips to China.

Young: What advice would you give people thinking about exporting?

There are opportunities in China and other Asian nations for those who approach it with a positive attitude, willingness to learn and the courage to get out of their comfort zone. You need to be open-minded.

The energy and “can do” attitude we experience in China is fantastic. On a recent visit in February 2013 we were overwhelmed with the 'generosity of spirit' we experienced from everyone we met.

Take your staff with you to learn about the culture there. We often take one of our staff with us as it helps them to appreciate this huge market and understand what we do have to do when we are away. After their visit to China, they realise that it is not a glamorous junket and they are more informed and better equipped to help us prepare for our trips.

You need to be high energy and resilient.  We meet so many people on our trips, going from one meeting to the next, that it can be exhausting. You must be strong emotional and physically.

Young: What challenges do Australian businesses need to overcome to be successful in Asia?

Australians tend to want people to come to them, but it is a global world and we all need to be aware what this means. Our advice is that you venture out and see what you can do or find. This is what the Chinese are doing. They are looking for opportunities all over Asia, Australia and further afield.

Australians need to collaborate more. Since we have been travelling abroad, we have noticed Australians can be complacent. A Chinese banker in Hong Kong said her impression was that the average Australian businessperson was ‘asleep’ to the opportunities and experiences being offered in the Asian century. We see this also. It would be great to have more stories about the courageous things Australians are doing beyond our borders. At the same time there are many people involved in quite marvellous ventures, it would be great for the average person to know why and how they do it.

For us it is a fascinating experience. We feel privileged to have the opportunity to explore it.


Interview conducted by Pamela Young: author of Stepping Up and Managing Director of growthcurv, December 2013

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