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The CEO As Salesman

A face-to-face meeting works better than a fax. A personal visit means more than a phone call-especially when it is the CEO who appears in an international customer’s conference room. Executive involvement in the sales process opens doors to new markets and cements customer relationships.

Companies that face grueling competition and slower growth rates in their domestic markets routinely are advised to “go global.” But the decision to become a worldwide player should not be taken lightly.

Going global means far more than unfurling foreign flags at corporate headquarters or boning up on how to convert deutsch marks and yen to dollars. It requires careful planning, acceptance of new risks, and a realization that change will take place throughout the organization-including a fundamental reassessment on the CEO’s role in the salts process.

This last point is key. The success of any global’ sales strategy hinges on the CEO’s willingess to take an active and direct (but not intrusive) part in selling.

Viewing sales support as a prime responsibility does not mean the CEO always marches in front of the parade, beating the big drum. In fact, it frequently requires restraint-with the CEO enabling others, such as fellow managers and field salespeople, to step to the foreground. But whatever the circumstances, more and more CEOs will be accepting an expanding role in sales, especially as their companies set their sights on growth opportunities abroad.


Although having been involved in international business most of my career, the CEO’s unique contribution to sales became more apparent to me 12 years ago when I took over as CEO of Cambrex Corp., a specialty chemical producer that now has sales of more than $200 million. It is something I came to fully appreciate only as a result  of my travels abroad-particularly to a region that is fast becoming a prink sales territory for our company as well as others: the Far East.

In many parts of the world, especially the Far East. personal relations are paramount in business. For any company aspiring to an international presence and the chance to tap markets half a world away, the most effective personal representative is the company’s highest-level manager. This is why both Cambrex’s president and chief operating officer, Jim Mack, and I each spend at least a week or two every four or five months traveling throughout the Far East.

About 25 percent of Cambrex’s revenues come from international sales, and on a country basis, China is currently our second largest customer, behind Germany. In fact, the Pacific Rim is the fastest-growing market for the chemical industry overall. But whatever the industry-autos, furniture, computers, apparel-the Far East likely will loom larger as a customer base in the future. The growth potential is enormous-a population of 2 billion, with 1.2 billion people in China alone. If only 20 percent of the people in China were interested in purchasing Western goods, that would be 240 million, or equal to the entire population of the U.S.

These figures provide a strong attraction for CEOs to focus on the Far East-and not just from their U.S. headquarters. When CEOs establish a personal rapport with their customers, the results invariably demonstrate why the sales function merits more of their time and energy.

I am convinced my personal involvement has helped Cambrex to improve product sales-though the extent of such influence is always difficult to quantify. But whatever my impact on sales, I also know the opportunities I’ve had to get closer to the marketplace have contributed to my effectiveness as a CEO; they have helped me to identify priorities and to guide the company.

Did I have to go so far away to obtain these insights? Maybe not. But do messages come home more forcefully when you meet face-to-face with customers and colleagues in rapidly expanding markets? You bet.

If you decide to jump into the fray, the following ground rules might help:

Make the trip. In determining how to fulfill these expanded sales responsibilities, the CEO must answer the travel questions: Are the trips necessary, and if so, how many? Obviously, it will depend on the company and the situation. But here are some considerations.

Travel, under the best of circumstances, can be a nuisance and can sap valuable time. Travel abroad can be a particular hassle-lengthy flights, difficult connections, lost sleep. And once you land, other challenges may lie ahead-different languages, unfamiliar customs, quirky transportation systems.

It’s natural for CEOs to think there must be a more convenient way. Enter the marvels of modern communication-phone, fax, and modem. Why become a traveling CEO salesman when becoming an armchair traveling CEO salesman might suffice? Dispatch in a flash what would take days to accomplish. Simple.

Yes, simple. And, unfortunately, everybody knows it. Shooting off a fax requires little personal energy and implies even less personal commitment.

Of course, the next rationalization is that if the point of global sales is to make personal contact with foreign business-people, why not do so closer to home-say, on the local golf course? Since international companies have representatives in the U.S., why not try to get to know them in the U.S.? Well, sharing an activity, especially a competitive sport, is an excellent way to find out more about fellow businesspeople. But it simply is not enough.

On a recent trip to Tokyo, I met with two high-level executives from a Japanese chemical company. I had played golf with them years earlier in the U.S., but had not seen them in more than a decade. We reminisced, even recalling certain holes we had played. As a result of our reunion-this time, in their homeland-I was able to introduce these businesspeople to Cambrex representatives in Japan. In the process, we all broadened our circle of business friendship.

They want to see you. Remember the once-popular catchphrase: “Take me to your leader”? Today, it might be more appropriately stated as, “Bring your leader to me.”

Customers and potential customers, both big and small, respond to the CEO’s calling on them a lot differently-and a lot more attentively-than they do to anybody else. The company that presents a personal face-especially the CEO’s-may have a distinct advantage.

But CEOs accustomed to quick results in the U.S. will have to temper their expectations when they help their companies’ sales efforts abroad. You do not go to the Far East to make a quick deal. You go to get acquainted, to break ground.

Before customers feel comfortable with your company, they have to understand you as CEO, and your values. What is required of CEOs in the international sales arena can best be summed up in what I call the “Three P’s”: patience, persistence, and participation.

Make good use of time. A CEO’s time is precious, and he or she must make optimal use of it. The key is planning and prioritizing. You can’t afford the luxury-or endure the aggravation-of trying to create a schedule on the run.

Foreign travel is much more physically and mentally demanding. In the U.S., it is easier for the CEO to aid his or her company’s sales effort. If you fly into O’Hare and have a couple hours to kill, it is simple to phone a Chicago customer and see if he or she is available for an impromptu get-together. But if it takes 17 hours to get to Hong Kong, when you hit the ground you already want to know who you will see and where you will go. And you want to take advantage of every communication convenience available-especially fax machines, which have made it far easier for CEOs to keep in touch with their home offices as they jet across time zones around the world.

Don’t step on toes. In setting my sales-related travel priorities, I rely heavily on the experience and knowledge of Cambrex’s sales and marketing people. My rule of the road is, “Always call in advance.” I do not “parachute” into an area without first alerting the local Cambrex sales representatives assigned to that territory that I will be in their neighborhood-even if I do not expect to see them on my trip.

This is more than a matter of courtesy. The intent is neither to show up anyone, nor to sneak up on anyone. The relationship with the sales force is one of trust. My message is clear: The CEO is there to help, not to upstage sales professionals.

In meetings with international customers, I see the relationship between the CEO and his or her company’s local sales representative as a cooperative partnership. I respect the special knowledge base of our local representative and try not to overstep my range of expertise. CEOs have to know a lot about a lot of things. But the extent of any CEO’s in-depth knowledge about particular geographic locations or even a company product line may be limited. I make sure to listen, not just talk.

The CEO brings another factor to the customer interface. He or she has a unique perspective of the company-cutting across all divisions and subsidiaries. That means the CEO may spot opportunities others could overlook. At Cambrex, I have found imaginative ways to draw on the strengths of the total corporation-for example, finding a way for one of our business centers to service another center’s customer.

Open those doors. Years ago, as a young salesman in the field, I ran up against prospects that I just could not get a meeting with, no matter how hard I tried. Sometimes, senior executives at the company I was working for made a call on my behalf. Suddenly, the door that wouldn’t budge a crack swung wide open. Once the initial contact was made, it was up to me to carry the ball, to convince the customer, and to service the account.

Today, I am receptive to opportunities in which I can help open doors for others. This is not a matter of charm or good looks. It is a prospective customer’s recognition that a company has the level of interest in its business to send a senior player, even the head honcho.

This is especially true in parts of the Far East, where titles and gray hair carry special weight. This past year, Cambrex had been working through a local representative in China to arrange a possible marketing venture. But the process was slow, and access to key people was limited. However, when they learned Cambrex’s CEO would be in Hong Kong and could visit with them in China, suddenly the top brass were available-more than available. They wanted to meet immediately, and two Cambrex representatives and I ended up holding a meeting in my hotel room with 11 people representing our potential partner.

Bone up on customs. In foreign travels, I have few complaints about airlines or hotels.

Just outside that hotel building, however, you may wander into a different world that grows more exotic as you proceed into the countryside. But finding out more about these places is part of the CEO’s job as well.

Savvy CEOs always make it a point to become familiar with their prime market areas-be it Wichita, Cincinnati, Baton Rouge, or Boulder. The principle is the same; it’s simply that in the future more key markets probably will have names such as Shanghai, Beijing, Osaka, and Taipei.

Naturally, some practices do take getting used to-customs, politics, menus. I have yet to embrace popular Far East delicacies such as fish eyes, insects, or octopus as appetizers. My tack is to respect differences, not imitate them.

Take your information straight. Let’s face it. News that any CEO gets from the marketplace tends to be “managed” to some extent. Generally, this is not done with any ill intent: It may be just an effort by well-meaning people to filter out those details they think you are too busy-or too important-to be bothered with.

Sometimes, however, these little “details” can help you get a sense of how well different parts of the company cooperate to offer quality and service. It’s amazing how smooth and regular a marketplace EKG can look from the comfort and isolation of the executive suite. There is no substitute for actually getting into the field to check vital signs for yourself.

You also can gauge perceptions that customers and competitors have of the company. The experience can be a real eye-opener.

In Taiwan, I recall sitting in the office of one of our most important customers. The man put two bottles on a table in front of me. “Mr. Baldwin,” he said, pointing to one of the bottles, “here is your product.” I looked at it. Then he pointed to the other bottle. “Here is your competition’s.”

The difference was all too apparent, and I am sorry to say, it was not in our favor. One of our subsidiaries was aware that the customer had quality concerns, and it was making changes at an orderly pace. What it didn’t realize-but what I comprehended as a result of my face-to-face meeting with the customer-was the need for speed in addressing these concerns. When I went back to the U.S., and we met with our subsidiary, the quality issue came up, and I fervently championed taking whatever steps necessary to accelerate an improvement in our quality and service to that customer. And we did.

Promote communication. By being close to the marketplace, the CEO also can work proactively to promote communication and cooperation within his or her organization. One of the biggest benefits is maintaining contact with local reps in different parts of the world, whether it is the panhandle of Texas or the boot of Italy. When the boss is there from headquarters, they feel connected, part of the team.

Each quarter, I spend several days in the field with salespeople. I am not talking about the vice president of marketing for a subsidiary or a director of sales, but about men and women on the front lines. I make sales calls with them.

These visits are arranged in advance. The salespeople decide where we go and who we see. I make it clear I am there to help, not to take charge.

As you make calls with salespeople, you spend hours in an airplane or a car, you sit in diners or restaurants, and your talk ranges from chit-chat to exchanges about the corporate mission. As CEO, you share a vision of the company as a whole, a vision they can help convey when they meet with customers. But in return, you receive valuable feedback from your people that helps you identify priorities-particularly as the scope of your company’s vision broadens to encompass your global sales effort.

Look within. Whether it’s acknowledged or not, CEOs already hold one of the biggest “selling” jobs in the company. They have to gain employee support for initiatives, lead in recruiting top-flight people, reassure investors about corporate strategy, and articulate company concerns to the outside world.

Most companies expect CEO involvement in the sales process. Some CEOs have been superstars in support of their sales efforts-people such as Lee Iacocca in his years at Chrysler, General Electric’s Jack Welch, and David Kearns, formerly of Xerox.

Just how much more any given CEO should devote to his company’s sales effort ultimately will depend on the company, its goals, and the specifics of its competitive situation. But for CEOs who sense the marketplace suddenly has speeded up, hut too much of the action seems to be happening someplace else, I offer encouragement. If your company’s future involves selling in global markets, make those travel plans, get out there, and strike up conversations-and don’t be surprised when one of those nice salespeople you notice on a long plane trip to the Far East turns out not just to work for your competitor, but to be its CEO.

C.C. Baldwin Jr. is chairman and chief executive of East Rutherford, NJ-based Cambrex Corp., a $200 million/billion specialty chemicals company. He is a former group vice president of Stauffer Chemical.

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