Pittsburghers seeing the world as even small firms pick up overseas clients
Share with others:
A typical month for Nelson Cano, chief executive officer of Cima Software, is a blur of different airports, hotels and languages. He just returned from a trip to Barcelona, Spain; he's currently in Peru, and he'll soon be off to Mexico for a face-to-face meeting with a major client.
"There are many more opportunities for our technology internationally," said Mr. Cano. "Companies are realizing that they need to be more competitive."
The globalization of the business world has led to Pittsburghers who spend as much time abroad as they do at home -- if not more. Some, like Mr. Cano, spend their weeks "Up in the Air," a la the George Clooney film. Others are temporary ex-pats, spending months or even years on international assignments, moving their belongings and their families around the world.
"It is no longer an option to be an international company because we're in an international market," said Dennis Unkovic, a partner with the law firm Meyer, Unkovic & Scott, who represents businesses with international operations.
It wasn't that long ago that international operations among Pittsburgh companies were largely restricted to the industry giants, he said, such as Gulf Oil, U.S. Steel and Westinghouse. These days, even companies with just a few employees have some international presence and not just in setting up factories overseas.
Companies are now expanding overseas to reach developing markets, he said, or to meet the needs of existing customers in established markets.
That was the case for the Reed Smith law firm, which acquired its first international law firm, London-based Warner Cranston, in 2001. Veteran partner Tom Todd spent two lengthy stints in London helping to integrate the firm into Reed Smith.
While there, Mr. Todd did everything from showing a secretary how to open a new business memorandum to figuring out strategically who would make sense as a lateral new hire.
He also kept his practice in Pittsburgh, flying back and forth when he needed to represent clients such as BNY Mellon.
In 2007, when Reed Smith was finalizing its acquisition of Hong Kong-based Richards Butler, Mr. Todd once again went overseas, spending two years in Hong Kong.
With the exception of college and law school in New England, Mr. Todd had spent his entire life in Pittsburgh. The international assignments were not just rewarding as a business challenge, but also from a personal perspective.
"We feel truly blessed to have had the experience," said Mr. Todd of the time that he and his wife spent in London and Hong Kong. "Mostly because of the experience, we have a different perspective on life, on culture and on various world issues."
That said, there were challenges.
Hong Kong has a 12- or 13-hour time difference from the United States, and Mr. Todd found himself working long and strange hours to keep up with his U.S. practice. He would sometimes be on conference calls at midnight or 4 a.m. "That was when I realized that overseas work is mainly for a younger person," he laughed.
Mr. Todd and his wife were deeply rooted in Pittsburgh -- he was president of the board of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra when he left -- and had to create new social lives for themselves overseas.
They were also separated from their two adult children. "We were on a golf course in Killarney, Ireland, when our first grandchild was born," he said. "Much as we like to play golf, we would have much rather been in Magee Hospital."
Just months after Mr. Todd and his wife returned from Hong Kong in 2008, one of his children spent two years in Shanghai on a business assignment.
Mr. Cano, of O'Hara-based Cima Software, also considers time away from his family to be the biggest downside of his nonstop international travel. But from a business perspective, markets overseas are an opportunity that he can't pass up.
Cima Software, which develops document management software and has 15 Pittsburgh-based employees, has had some international presence for most of its history. From the start, its development team has been based in Athens, Greece.
In recent years, the company has ramped up sales to international clients. Cima has between 60 and 70 international clients, said Mr. Cano, and between 500 and 600 U.S. clients.
Eight months ago, the company opened up an office in Lima, Peru, choosing that location because of Peru's friendly free-trade agreements, fast-growing economy, central location within Latin America and high incentives for foreign investment.
Latin America has provided a new market, and entry into other global businesses. For example, the Kellogg's cereal company became a Cima client in Colombia. Through that contract, Cima eventually secured Kellogg's U.S. business as well.
"We have success internationally and try to leverage that in the U.S.," Mr. Cano said. "Sometimes you can go internationally and then come back -- we're opening new doors that way."
Working extensively internationally is easier now than it was just a few years ago, he said. His company now has its records on a cloud-based system, accessible from anywhere.
"Even five years ago, it was much harder," he said. "Things like just setting up a conference were much more complicated."
Mr. Cano stressed the importance of preparing for trips -- not just in terms of hotel and transportation details but also in researching local customs. Doing business in Brazil, for example, requires finding a Brazilian counterpart to represent you. "In Brazil, they only do business with Brazilians."
In Mexico City, it would be a waste of time to schedule more than a couple meetings a day, he said. "It takes you two hours to get to anything. If you think you're going to have 10 meetings, forget it."
Although the rewards of international expansion are rich, there are high costs as well. Mr. Cano laments the paucity of direct international flights from Pittsburgh and the resulting waste of time and money.
Sending employees overseas for long stretches is also expensive, Mr. Unkovic said. Considering the costs of moving a family, paying for trips home and even private school for children, "It might cost half a million to send someone overseas," he said.
The most common countries that Pittsburgh companies do business with are China, Singapore, Hong Kong and India, he said.
Large companies are constantly expanding their international presence, he said, trying to appeal to a population like India's, with 200 million people in its middle class.
In his opinion, small companies that aren't already looking overseas are in danger of being left behind. And that belief is not, he joked, because he makes a living representing companies expanding internationally.
"If they don't get into the business of doing international now, it's going to be too late," he said. "There are only so many steel companies out there. If you don't get your piece, somebody else will."
First Published March 20, 2012 12:00 am