How do you launch yourself in foreign markets and increase your chances of success with as little risk and investment as possible? Thanks to a well-developed network that's worth its weight in gold...
International growth is essential for companies, not only for large groups but also for SMEs. A versatile strategic choice that makes every project a unique adventure... whether we're talking about 'normal' cooperation with partners abroad, about export or foreign establishments. But it's not that simple, as it's an equation with several variables. How do you keep all those variables under control? By seeking an answer to a whole series of questions, clearing up your doubts, analysing different parameters, exploring the terrain and forging partnerships. Consequently, you can use all the help you can get (and often specialised guidance, too). And you'll find that in a network. A well-developed, reliable and competent network. An ecosystem that helps you:
- cut distances and times;
- explore and confirm existing options;
- accelerate all processes;
- make everything a bit easier.
These are all tasks that only useful and reliable local contacts can guarantee you. However, building such a network beyond our national borders isn't so easy. It's therefore in your best interest to build on existing solutions that have already proved their worth.
PRESENCE OF 'PUBLIC' BODIES
Belgium is all too aware of the importance of good relational ties and therefore has an extensive diplomatic network: the Belgian chambers of commerce with representatives of the Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs and regional delegates linked to export support agencies (abroad). But the contacts alone are not enough... Companies can indeed find information and support during their project preparation, but not necessarily all the answers to realise their project and expand their activities in the country in question. So, a bank like BNP Paribas Fortis didn't just opt to set up its own 'ecosystem' for businesses, using the expertise of its Trade Development department, among others. This is a network of global experts who support the client from start to finish.
THE 'BILATERAL' CHAMBERS: ACROSS BORDERS
That's what the Belgian chambers of commerce abroad are called. Independent organisations that can be found (almost) anywhere in the world. Their mission? Share their experience and support Belgian companies with their establishment in 'their' country. They were set up on the initiative of local companies with a link to Belgium and have one common task: to strengthen our ties with a region or country. These 'bilateral' chambers of commerce are accredited, and this can count in terms of reliability. They also cooperate with the official network of representatives of Belgium abroad. But not only that... For some years now, BNP Paribas Fortis has been providing support – by joining – some ten such bilateral chambers: the Chinese, American, African, Indian and Arabian chambers of commerce, to name but a few. This is an additional benefit for the bank's customers, as it gives them access to a 'unique' forum of companies and prospects in a clearly defined market. And particularly useful for expanding your network and gaining as much useful information and experience as possible.
A UNIQUE MEETING AND SHARING PLACE
The bilateral chambers of commerce are extremely useful tools for companies seeking to gain an international foothold. They help make international expansion projects smoother and faster. But that isn't all they do. These independent organisations are also a meeting place for all companies involved in commercial exchanges between Belgium, China, the United States, Africa and India. All kinds of companies can be found here: large and small, Belgian and foreign, companies with a long history as well as newcomers. And not forgetting certain representatives of the public sector: staff from the Minister for Foreign Affairs' office, Flanders Investment & Trade, Hub.Brussels and AWEX (Walloon Export and Foreign Investment Agency). And of course, BNP Paribas Fortis!
This network therefore comprises all the important people and bodies you need to expand your commercial relations and boost your international growth. So, a bank also deserves a place in this ecosystem. As such, BNP Paribas Fortis has logically strengthened its position in this network by joining the boards of directors and various committees of the bilateral chambers and by actively participating in events and training courses. In this way, the people in charge of banking relationships also keep up to date with the latest developments and business practices in the countries concerned. Although the current situation doesn't exactly make things easier, the network's strength is often demonstrated by the events organised by the bilateral chambers with BNP Paribas Fortis' support. They are a unique opportunity to meet others, listen to carefully selected speakers and learn about topics that are important for your international expansion project.
A full 'assessment' before you go abroad
We can no longer deny the benefits of internationalisation. But is your business ready for it? A thorough assessment to measure your project's success is therefore a must before you cross the border.
Just because your business is doing well in our country doesn't mean that you can just jump into the export market. An international breakthrough is an important strategic (and necessary) choice that requires extensive preparation. The first step is to take a detailed look at the state of affairs of your company. Because that way you can:
- Highlight your strengths and success factors: a specific skill, your expertise, your brand image, etc.;
- Identify your weaknesses: both internal (poor knowledge of the target market, need for funding, etc.) and external factors;
- Prepare your structure for 'new' demands: in terms of human resources and in financial, organisational, legal or commercial terms;
- Draw up your roadmap: make the necessary changes, maximise your assets and find the right solutions for your weaknesses.
A COMPLETE TOOLKIT
Such an assessment is not market research in the literal sense of the word, although some elements will eventually overlap or complement one another. The assessment should also enable you to gain insight into existing opportunities (competitive advantage, commercial trends, etc.) and threats (changes in legislation, major competition, etc.). To do that, you must be able to look at your foreign target group with the necessary distance.
There are many tools for this. Examples include the SWOT analysis, Porter's five forces model, the Boston Consulting Group matrix or the PESTEL analysis to measure the influence of macro-environmental factors. So, feel free to use those tools, but also remember the importance of step-by-step guidance.
A MUCH-NEEDED SELF-ANALYSIS
Give attention to different elements. To achieve a relevant assessment, you must also find answers to a series of important questions:
- Create your 'identity card'
Take an unbiased look at your organisation. What are your values, culture, references, image, etc.? How are you perceived by others? Does your positioning match your identity? Through these questions, you'll also gain insight into the reasons for your successes and failures on the international market. It's interesting to repeat the positive points and learn from your mistakes.
- Analyze your position on the domestic market
Take stock of your commercial position. Examine the evolution of your recent results and your weighting in your segment (market share, competition, degree of dependency, etc.). Find out what stage your products and services are in (launch, growth, saturation or decline). Next, you can consider your market's prospects and future: how will it evolve? A very important question at a time where the challenges of the sustainable transition are radically changing many sectors.
- Assess your products and services
Each country has its own specific obligations and standards. So, ask yourself whether your products and services are 'compliant', both commercially and legally. Perhaps you need to adapt them? Or maybe your production or delivery method needs to change (e.g. to respect the cold chain and guarantee reasonable delivery times)? In other words, are you ready for the step from a commercial point of view?
- Lay bare your capabilities
If you want to conquer foreign markets, you must be able to cope with that growth rate on an operational level as well. Can you increase or adapt your production capacity to the new demand? Are you ready for that in terms of supply and logistics? Also take into consideration the reliability of your partners and suppliers. And don't forget that your inventory will increase, and you must also have guarantees in that regard as well.
- Examine your financial situation carefully
Going international means a big investment for your company. So, take a close look at your finances and see whether you have enough funds to bring the project to a successful conclusion. You need these resources, for example, to launch commercial initiatives locally (while waiting for the first revenues), to 'transform' your company in the necessary areas, to support your activity in your own country or to recruit additional staff.
- Carry out an analysis in the area of human resourcesTo export, you need qualified and skilled staff (production, sales teams, communication, after-sales service, R&D, etc.). You may also need to train staff or recruit new talent with international experience. Although internationalisation can be an extra motivation for your employees, it will also require additional efforts from them. So, don't lose sight of the 'human' factor either!
This complete audit of your structure gives you everything you need to make the right choices. Have you got the commercial strengths, the human and financial resources, the operational capabilities and the necessary experience to take the step? Do you need some extra support to adjust certain parameters? Or are you postponing the launch to find the right solutions for some weak spots? The adventure can begin once you're ready!
Internationalisation: which strategy should you apply?
Conquering international markets is an indispensable growth lever for companies. Such a project can take different forms or follow different paths: from e-commerce to mergers and acquisitions.
International expansion can be an important growth factor for your company and an undeniable source of opportunities – both commercially and in terms of innovation or resilience. After a complete assessment of your current situation, an inevitable question follows: which strategy should you apply to realise your project? There's no magic formula or mapped-out path: in reality, you often adopt a wide-ranging approach based on various strategies. Nevertheless, we do see some broad outlines. And each has its own strengths and limitations. Whatever you decide, your choice should fit into an overall thinking and be in line with the current situation and the future of your business. The objective? Increasing your chances of success and keeping the risks under control as much as possible.
1. Direct and indirect export
This is naturally one of the most widely used strategies for conquering foreign markets. You can sell your products abroad through one or more channels:
- E-commerce: E-commerce is a fast and accessible solution to get 'far' with limited resources. Internet sales have grown very strongly in recent years but have a significant impact on the logistical workload. This includes not only technology and conformity, but also the commercial aspect. You are far from your target market and must deal with competitors from all over the world, while the internet knows no borders – and that's both an asset and an obstacle.
- A local intermediary: A gamble without too many risks, because you make use of the power of local sales – your agent delivers the customer's orders locally and you transfer them. The only thing left to do is to decide how to distribute your products. In this regard, it's important that you make full use of your knowledge of the foreign market. Think, for example, of consumers' consumption habits and expectations. Although this approach does not require major investments (payments on commission), it isn't entirely without risk. The success of your project is entirely in the hands of your local contact, leaving you to count on that partner's reliability.
- Commercial distribution: A similar approach to conquering the international market. This strategy can be implemented quickly and is the result of cooperation with independent distributors who are based in your target area. They buy the goods and then sell them, enabling you to benefit from their expertise and network. Unlike the intermediary, this distributor takes several tasks off your hands (invoicing, collection, marketing costs or import costs). Choosing the right partners and determining the terms of the contract is no easy task. After all, your project's success depends on it...
- Transfer of patents or technology: This is a way to make your know-how or technology pay off, not your products. This transfer of skills gives a foreign entity the right to use your methods or innovation within the framework of a previously established contract (geographical area, duration, etc.). An opportunity to go international where you 'outsource' production, sales and distribution. Contract preparation is one of the stumbling blocks of this approach.
2. Local establishment
Another model for internationalisation is to establish your business abroad. This means that you go local: you establish your entire value chain in another country, or you produce, distribute or sell your products there yourself. This geographical approach necessarily requires greater investment, but it also gives you more clout. This approach is also a way of reinforcing your resilience: the financial and commercial risks, as well as the pressure on your value chain, are spread over several areas. Over the years, a more flexible approach has also been introduced, allowing companies to move more flexibly in line with the international situation. Various options are also available here:
- Subsidiary or branch: In both cases, it's a matter of establishing a firm and lasting foothold in the local market. However, the project requires a solid foundation and a long-term vision. You should also think carefully about the legal status: do you opt for a subsidiary or for a branch? Consequently, when making this decision, take into account various factors: the degree of autonomy, the desired degree of decentralisation or consultation, the legal and tax implications, whether or not to produce locally (to take advantage of cheaper raw materials, for example), the financial resources that you can mobilise, and so on. In any case, a perfect lever for applying the well-known formula 'think globally, act locally'.
- International joint venture: This principle is based on the creation of synergies. Your company joins a company that already has a local presence and both companies complement each other. Each company benefits from the other's strengths while sharing the activity's risks, control and common costs. Such a joint venture or partnership often requires a customised legal structure. As you can see, a joint venture is not an easy marriage. It's therefore crucial that you find the right partner and come to an agreement with them concerning each party's input and responsibilities.
- Merger or acquisition: This growth strategy offers a few advantages. What's the greatest advantage? A merger or acquisition is a method of consolidating and diversifying your business. It's also a 'quick' way to conquer a new market by exploiting the local company's competitive advantages (technological, commercial, etc.). Such a project naturally entails not only potential benefits, but also risks. For example, you may misjudge the sources of value creation or the risks, or have difficulty integrating.
As you can see, your international project's success depends on many factors. And, first and foremost, on your own strategic choices and your ability to develop a clear vision of exactly what you want to achieve. From the development of a commercial partner network to a sustainable local presence, there are many options that deserve not only thorough consideration, but also professional guidance.
Where will your 'international' roadmap take you?
Assessment? Check! Your strategy? All mapped out. You've also already determined your target market. But you've still got some way to go before you can cross borders... Some 'required stops'.
You're fully convinced of the benefits of internationalisation by now. You see it as an important lever for the growth of your business. But it's a process that doesn't happen overnight and is the result of a long decision-making process. You've carried out a preliminary assessment of your options before venturing into foreign markets. A checklist and initial indispensable considerations, so to speak, to find out whether the project was worthwhile. You then considered the choice of the most appropriate strategy for your business... You considered direct solutions such as e-commerce or commercial distribution. Or perhaps more sustainable establishment models, such as opening a branch or subsidiary, implementing synergies through a joint venture or a merger acquisition. This decision is based on a thorough analysis of the situation specific to your organisation. This approach often requires meticulous guidance. You will have also determined your target market during this process, which is a very important step. Your project's success now depends on the implementation of an action plan. And this phase inevitably brings with its new considerations and decisions...
NO SUCH THING AS ONE SIZE FITS ALL
In any case, your plan depends on your internationalisation strategy. The launch of an e-commerce platform or the choice of an intermediary imposes different requirements – in terms of due diligence obligations, financial resources or the definition of the target market, for example – than a merger acquisition. What's more, every merger-acquisition process is unique. What does this mean? That each adventure requires a tailor-made approach that considers the specific characteristics of your company, your products or services, your sector, your competitors, your added value, and more. Furthermore, the mapping of your international growth will be highly influenced by the characteristics of the target market. No magic formula then? Correct, but we do point out some common 'required stops' that deserve your attention.
1. The 'local' considerations
France is not Belgium. And Belgium is not Germany and certainly not Japan or Brazil. Each country has specific characteristics that shouldn't be taken lightly. It's more than 'folklore'! These are real 'keys' that you must assess correctly in order to make a difference. Numerous (internationally renowned) companies have come to grief while trying to do this. It's another commercial reality that can have a major impact on your action plan:
- Cultural codes and language
- Relationships with partners
- Corporate culture
- Consumer habits and expectations
- Do’s and don'ts
- Don't lose sight of the regulatory aspects: they're essential!
Note that a product that is successful in the domestic market will be perceived differently elsewhere. It will prompt you to take certain preliminary actions: call in experts from the country in question, carry out a more in-depth market study, participate in more local trade fairs, etc.
2. Adaptation of your commercial range
An important reflection that causes you to reassess a series of parameters:
From a commercial point of view: do your products and services meet the target group's specific needs? Does your range satisfy the previously identified needs? Is it sufficiently appealing? How will you position yourself? Does the quality meet the local standards? And so on.
From a legal point of view: the key question is whether you comply with the local market's regulatory or administrative requirements. Do you need special certifications? Do you have to comply with specific technical obligations? And so on.
You must answer these questions to determine whether your market access strategy is ready in all respects: marketing and communication, value proposition, distribution methods, logistics chains, payment methods, etc. Not to mention your pricing policy. It may show that you need to make some adjustments at the production, distribution or commercial level.
3. Choice of partner
This isn't an easy task. Whatever your internationalisation project, this point plays a key role. You therefore need to set very clear objectives, missions and criteria that will serve as a guide to identify, prequalify and select the best local partners. The risk – and therefore the importance – of this approach is even greater in the case of a merger acquisition. A long-lasting marriage that must not fail... You will therefore need resources and time to complete your due diligence process.
4. You still have a way to go...
The following steps are no less important. We can give you the following tips in the meantime:
- Carryout a thorough risk analysis.
- Prepare a budget for your expansion project and ensure you work out several scenarios, because you can always come up against surprises. Consider the fiscal context and the local market's specifications (infrastructure costs, employment costs, etc.).
- Plan distribution and transport circuits.
- Prepare a detailed schedule for your project's roll-out.
ESG becomes law: what you need to know
Experts from 16 cities around the world shared their insights at the Sustainable Future Forum. In Brussels, we heard from Virginie Frémat, Senior Partner at law firm CMS, who specialises in ESG and corporate responsibility.
Environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors have moved from being a niche concern to a strategic board-level priority across all sectors and jurisdictions in a short space of time.
ESG implementation and reporting are no longer things companies do to be socially responsible: they have a legal obligation to embrace them.
From financial institutions to energy companies to tech start-ups, from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to publicly listed companies, all businesses need to focus urgently on ESG.
While the impact of ESG regulation is indisputable, the business and investment environment is opening up new opportunities and will continue to do so in future. Existing and future ESG regulation is about making people and the planet an integral part of a company's long-term strategy. This development creates opportunities for companies to do better for people and the planet, while creating greater value for investors.
A changing playing field
Not only are governments becoming more demanding on ESG issues, shareholders and civil society movements are also making their voices heard. Consider the Urgenda Foundation, which took the Dutch state to court: it demanded that the government do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and was successful. Whether the Belgian climate case can force the government to take action on climate change is currently being decided in the Court of Appeal.
The push for companies to adopt more concrete, measurable and enforceable ESG initiatives is coming from three directions:
- Stakeholder activism
- European directives
- National legislation
Sustainable finance action plan
In March 2018, the European Commission launched its Action Plan on Sustainable Finance, which aims to:
- Direct capital flows towards sustainable investments for inclusive growth
- Manage financial risks related to climate change and social issues
- Promote transparency and long-term thinking in finance
Key features include a single EU classification system (taxonomy), investor responsibilities, low-carbon benchmarks and improved sustainability guidance, all aimed at promoting a more sustainable financial future.
Non-financial reporting directive
To support the transition to a more sustainable economy, the European Parliament adopted the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) in late 2022. This is an extension of the Non-Financial Reporting Directive (NFRD), both in terms of the number of companies that have to comply with the standards and the number of topics they need to report on.
The NFRD came into force on 5 January 2023 and will eventually apply to around 50,000 companies. In the same way that companies are now required to carry out financial reporting, they will also have to report on sustainability. The largest companies will be the first to report, with smaller companies following later. On 3 September 2017, the Belgian legal system incorporated these requirements, which are now part of the Belgian Code on Companies and Associations.
The EU Taxonomy Regulation introduces a classification system for environmentally sustainable economic activities. Article 8 of this regulation imposes disclosure requirements on companies subject to the NFRD. These include the obligation to disclose the extent of a company’s engagement in environmentally sustainable activities and certain key performance indicators.
Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive
Companies subject to the CSRD must include non-financial information in their annual management reports, covering environmental, social, human rights, anti-corruption, bribery and diversity issues. The CSRD also requires a brief description of the company's business model, policies, performance, key risks and non-financial performance indicators.
Sustainability reporting will follow mandatory EU standards: the first set of standards was published on 30 June 2023 and a second set with additional and sector-specific information will be published by 30 June 2024. Reporting must take into account the principle of double materiality, covering both how a company’s business is impacted by sustainability issues and how its business impacts society and the environment.
The CSRD emphasises the value chain, strategy, stakeholder interests, implementation of sustainability policies and progress towards sustainability goals.
It requires disclosure of due diligence processes, adverse impacts throughout the value chain, actions taken to mitigate such impacts, material sustainability risks and relevant indicators.
The CSRD has introduced comprehensive sustainability reporting requirements for large public-interest companies, so that they provide detailed and transparent information on their sustainability practices and impacts.
Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive
This directive applies to large EU and non-EU companies. It requires them to carry out due diligence and to act on any findings. There are sanctions for non-compliance. The new civil liability regime allows direct claims by individuals who are harmed by a company's non-compliance.
For companies incorporated under the law of an EU member state, the CSDDD applies to companies with an average of more than 500 employees and a global turnover of more than €150 million in the last financial year. Alternatively, it applies if a company has an average of more than 250 employees and a global turnover of more than €40 million in the last financial year, with at least 50% of that turnover generated in sectors deemed to be high-risk. High-risk sectors include those involved in the manufacture of textiles, leather, agriculture, food, minerals and related trade.
In addition, the CSDDD introduces measures applicable to SMEs involved in the value chains of companies covered by the Directive, recognising the indirect impact on them.
I run an SME: what should I do?
Unlisted SMEs fall outside the scope of the CSDDD, so they are not directly subject to its provisions. However, SMEs with securities listed on an EU regulated market (excluding micro-enterprises) fall within the scope of the CSDDD, although they can opt out until 2012
. In addition, a specific set of EU sustainability reporting standards tailored to SMEs is being developed, which non-listed SMEs can adopt on a voluntary basis.
It is important to note that even if SMEs are not directly covered by the CSDDD, they may still be affected by it through their involvement in the value chains of larger companies. Both EU member states and companies within the scope of the CSDDD have an obligation to support SMEs in these value chains.
I’m a director: what does this mean for me?
The CSDDD has wider implications for directors of companies that fall within its scope. Directors have a fiduciary duty to promote the success of their companies, but they also face risks such as criminal and civil liability and sanctions, particularly if they are directors of listed companies. In addition, the focus on ESG and sustainability issues can lead to reputational damage. The CSDDD increases the regulatory burden on companies, both in terms of time and cost. There may also be a negative impact on share prices and the cost of directors and officers insurance premiums. Articles 25 and 26 of the CSDDD, which relate to the duties of directors of EU companies, remain subject to ongoing discussion and refinement.