KEITH CLARKE LAMBOURNE, MBE, MIEx*, who has decades of experience in trading with the region, outlines the challenges and opportunities for UK businesses in the Middle East.
The Middle East market is challenging, diverse, competitive and frustrating at times, which are issues companies and individuals planning to establish a presence in the Middle East should be aware of.
However, the rewards for those who can overcome these obstacles can open up a region that has the potential to provide opportunities for business expansion, new product development coupled with the possibility of building an impressive successful project portfolio which can aid further sales and marketing.
There is no doubt that opportunities exist for UK companies that are prepared to view the region as a medium- to long-term prospect but it is important to research if your product or service is suitable or whether it needs modifications to be accepted.
For decades, the region has been a major target market for the UK construction industry throughout all of its sectors – architects, consulting engineers, contractors and building product manufacturers; and every year in the UK, there are numerous reports prepared and distributed, many seminars, exhibitions and trade missions arranged that have a focus on the numerous infrastructure projects being planned and built in the Middle East.
Given that ACO International, a leader in drainage technology, has been involved continuously in the region for more than three decades, it is interesting to reflect on how the markets have evolved and how, as a building material manufacturer and supplier, it has had to adapt its tactics to survive and grow its business throughout the Gulf region.
For 15 years, the region was managed from the UK which was responsible for supporting a network of distributors in countries throughout the Gulf and the Levant.
The company visited the markets frequently and exhibited regularly at most of the major construction-related exhibitions whilst also advertising in magazines such as Gulf Construction, which all contributed to “building the brand”.
Its market share grew steadily at first. However, there were years when sales did decline but as the brand became better known and accepted, a momentum developed that could only be capitalised on by opening its own offices in Dubai and finally by the installation of a manufacturing plant.
From my first visit to the region all those years ago, the markets of the Gulf have changed beyond recognition but the fundamentals for success in many ways remain as valid today as they were then.
Planning and formulating a strategy, preparing a budget that allows for visits to the region and the sourcing and appointing of a suitable distributor or agent to promote your products are vital steps on the road to success.
Visiting and supporting your market partners is paramount as they should be viewed as an extension of your sales force since they represent your company and brand in the regions during your absence. Competition is fierce and can come from anywhere in the world, Europe, Asia, Africa and, of course, from locally produced goods.
A niche innovative product designed for a niche sector can be a powerful combination as this at least may reduce the risk of having to supply purely on price, by limiting the number of competitors that are able to quote.
The importance of specification and branding should not be underestimated as this assists in placing companies as preferred suppliers during the design and tender process of planned projects.
For those reliant on specification, it is critical to follow targeted projects through all of their stages from concept, design, tender and award, being aware that timescales sometimes are in years rather than months and may involve companies and consortiums worldwide.
There are many sources for advice and guidance for those seeking to gain access to these markets which include UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), The Arab British Chamber of Commerce, The Middle East Association and the Global Trade Network (GTN).
Success comes hand in hand with gaining knowledge and experience by visiting the market, targeting projects best suited to require your products or services, developing good contacts but, above all, being able to support fully the requirements of your customers when necessary with technical support, design assistance, on-time quotations and deliveries, documentation and importantly efficient after sales support.
Rarely are we judged by our mistakes but we certainly are by our responses to them.
* Keith Lambourne is export director of ACO International/ACO Group and chairman of Global Trade Network (GTN), a not-for-profit organisation where the members decide what is important and how it should operate. GTN, which is supported by the UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) and Chambers of Commerce, is designed to help international trading companies improve their business performance through networking with like-minded individuals.