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International expansion's easier with expert advice and planning

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Overseas expansion is a top priority today for many small and mid-size businesses, said Elizabeth Finn Payne, an advisor at High Street Partners. But the maze of complicated rules and vast cultural differences can make global markets difficult to navigate, said Payne, who helps companies manage tax implications, streamline operations, hire staff, and gain an understanding of foreign countries. “Some countries are more challenging than others to enter,” said Payne, who gives China as an example where rapidly changing regulations require constant monitoring and adjustment. “China is interesting because it’s an all or nothing mentality to enter. You can’t really dip your toe into the market to test it. The Chinese government makes it practically impossible to enter half way,” said Payne, who works with customers in over 25 countries, primarily in Western Europe and Asia.

Q: Can you give an example of a client that has done an effective job of expanding overseas?
A: Passkey, a hotel booking technology for meetings and events, recently opened offices in Hong Kong, expanded operations in Singapore, and is planning an expansion of its United Kingdom facility. As they have invested in building up their international sales force, they’ve been very proactive in planning this expansion. Instead of just plunging right in, they figured out the best business structure for their needs, reviewed the timetable for setup, and figured out cost and hiring considerations before entering the countries.

Q: What aspect of international expansion can be the most confounding?
A: Employment law can be bewildering. Most US companies can hire and fire at will with no notice period, but this usually isn’t the case internationally. When hiring people in France, for example, there’s a collective bargaining agreement that has to be adhered to for each individual industry. This can regulate how many hours a worker puts in, holiday pay, and bonus pay, and more. French employees know their employment rights (since they are so generous) and have no problem taking their grievances to the French Tribunal, which has been historically favorable to employees’ rights.

Q: What countries do American executives feel most comfortable expanding into?
A: While developing economies like Asia and Africa are the growth hotspots but the smoothest places to do business outside of North America are the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia. The UK in particular tends to be the entry way to expansion elsewhere. It has a couple of things in its favor, primarily the English language, and from a time zone perspective, it’s only five hours ahead.

Q: Are most companies bringing staff over to foreign countries, or hiring local staff or a combination of the two?
A: The expatriate world is very complex and pricey. A lot of companies I’ve seen are moving away from that and looking to hire locally. It’s an interesting shift.

Q: Q: What drew you to the international business industry?
A: A: I knew from a young age that I wanted to be connecting with people, especially internationally. Perhaps it was traipsing around Paris by myself when I was 14 during a summer abroad. I knew then that I enjoyed learning about different people and experiencing new cultures, language, and food. We all share the same triumphs and tragedies that make us human, and it is easy to connect with a Spanish lawyer over their new marriage, a Chinese colleague’s birth of their baby and a Brazilian lawyer’s birthday.

Q: What are the most bizarre local laws you have ever encountered when helping a company expand overseas?
Α: Well, one that seems strange to me is that in the Philippines there’s a law that requires all employers to provide each worker with a sack of rice each month.

Q: As you deal with other countries, is there a favorite app or website that you like to use?
A: Since I’m often calling other countries, one of my favorites is TimeandDate.com. It has a world clock which shows the current time in cities as well as other calendars, counters and countdowns. I called Switzerland yesterday, and the person I was speaking with said, “I can do a conference call at 4:30.” I quickly converted it; it was 10:30 a.m. here, so I knew that I could schedule it on my end.

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