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Ash Sahi is the president and chief executive officer of CSA Group.
Ash Sahi is the president and chief executive officer of CSA Group.

LEADERSHIP LAB

Buying a foreign company? Lessons from the trenches Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

Canadian chief executive officers have two choices when looking to expand into new international markets: buy or build. Both have benefits and drawbacks as part of any long-term business strategy – the key is to understand what you’re looking to achieve and how quickly you expect to see results.

To move quickly into foreign markets with effective operations from day one, acquiring can be the most efficient option. If the right company is available, there are tremendous advantages, not the least of which is a ready-made work force with experience and expertise in the region.

But international acquisitions require a certain approach to leadership – one that can make or break the success of a deal. Once a decision is made to acquire a foreign company, there are a number of issues to consider. My experience has taught me three of the most important lessons in leadership. These are also relevant for day-to-day management, of course, but are especially critical during an acquisition.

1. Be there

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of being on the ground in scoping out and managing the acquisition process. Phone calls and spreadsheets are no substitute for the commitment you show and the intelligence you gather when you travel there in person. It allows you to see first-hand the capability of the team, the potential impact of the acquisition and the true value the company will bring to your business. And it allows you to build trust and a relationship with the owner and management, which is crucial since they are naturally concerned about their legacy.

Last month, for instance, we acquired a company in the United Kingdom. I spent time there throughout the course of the acquisition process – as did members of my senior leadership team – with the purpose of getting to know the management team and the company inside and out, and ensuring the business would provide good value for our organization. The result was a smooth acquisition: The owners know that we are working to uphold their interests and integrate their operations into ours in a way that delivers benefits on both sides.

2. Be flexible

Leaders like to get things done – the sooner the better. Conversely, acquisitions often move slowly, can require laborious effort and frequently don’t work out. In other words, they almost always require a generous amount of patience and flexibility. The ability to change tactics or re-evaluate strategies is critical – as is the patience and wisdom to know when the wait or extra effort is worth it. You need to be prepared to walk away from the deal if it simply isn’t going to provide a good return on your investment, and know when it makes sense to keep moving forward.

We have made five acquisitions over the past three years – and each one was unique and taught me a great deal about how crucial it is to be flexible. In one of our recent acquisitions, for example, we had a plan to acquire one company. Then, as the process rolled out and we went deeper into what that business could offer, we decided it made sense to expand the scope further and acquire a second company with similar business service offerings. Ultimately, we acquired two companies in parallel, and were able to leverage and maximize the process– something that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t recognized the need to be flexible and change course where needed.

3. Culture is king

The most strategic acquisition can falter under the weight of poor cultural fit. This is where soft skills and trust are paramount. You need to be able to assess and, if warranted, fully trust the team you acquire on the ground. If you are acquiring a profitable company, you should try to keep the current management team in place, and add some of your own team to the mix.

In fact, I make sure to bring in my personnel as quickly as possible, and I have found that it is important for a number of reasons: First, it ensures that there is succession in place in case the acquired leader walks, and secondly, it allows for a more rapid – and natural – blending of corporate cultures. Ultimately the culture has to be consistent with your company’s value system. This will take several years, but it’s well worth the effort. Just remember: Don’t change what isn’t broken and don’t underestimate the impact of the changes you do make on the team there.

Of course, there are many more things to consider in managing acquisitions. Executives still need to ask themselves exactly what they expect an acquisition to do for them – enhance capabilities, help differentiate, allow you to operate core competencies in a new market, and so forth. And a CEO needs to rely on an excellent management team and a strong integration team through the process of acquisition as well.

The three principles I’ve outlined here certainly won’t guarantee success in and of themselves. But years of experience have taught me that ignoring these fundamentals will thwart your efforts and affect your ability to succeed in the long term.

Ash Sahi is the president and chief executive officer of CSA Group, (@CSA_Standards) an independent, not-for-profit member-based association that is a standards development, testing and certification organization.

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