For millions of avid golfers, a trip to the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland, the widely acknowledged home of golf, is a pilgrimage that needs to be undertaken at least once in a lifetime.
Luckily for Bruce Rempel, the owner and president of Dryrainge Equipment Company Inc., the journey, which he made last month, also doubled as a business trip. It just so happens that Britain has become the strongest market worldwide for Saskatoon-based Dryrainge, which manufactures two- or three-person movable canopies that shield golfers from wind and rain and harmful UV rays while they hone their game.
The company is the brainchild of four friends in Saskatchewan who hashed out a prototype frame from Budweiser cans following a round of golf 18 years ago. The canopies, which are manufactured in Winnipeg, retail for $11,000 for the smaller version, with the larger one costing an additional $1,000.
The product is aimed mainly at club pros who teach paying customers the finer points of the game, but whose income can be limited when inclement weather forces postponement of the lessons. With 150 units sold in Britain so far, Mr. Rempel is determined to keep pushing the product in a country where weather is commonly known to interfere with leisure pursuits such as golf.
But he also acknowledges that his company wouldn't be where it is today if he hadn't found a local expert to help sell the product to new customers. John Makepeace, a 65-year-old former golf-cart salesman, already had the client base and the knowledge of the sport.
After seeing the product in Glasgow, Mr. Makepeace approached Dryrainge with a desire to become the company's distributor in Britain. Mr. Rempel says the Englishman's impact on the company has been a massive boon.
"It's huge," he says. "It's having the right inroads with the right people."
Businesses looking to enter a new market, particularly one where the differences are quantifiable, often use that tactic. Getting that insider knowledge is vital.
"They need to understand the market, first of all," said Bruce Dunlop, vice-president of commercial markets and small businesses for Export Development Canada, in a July interview. "Finding a local partner might make sense in some cases."
It's a strategy that so far hasn't paid off for Dryrainge in the United States, a country with about 15,000 golf courses – 45 per cent of the world's courses. Mr. Rempel says he has tried four or five distributors south of the border and the results have been "hit and miss."
Selling into the United States can be a particular challenge, says Peter Brown, a senior practice partner at Deloitte.
For one thing, he explains, the United States is the most transparent market in the world, meaning consumers are more demanding about product information.
As well, "A lot of Canadian businesses assume the U.S. market is like the Canadian market," he says. But it is more competitive.
The relative size of the country can make selling there a much more regional pursuit than it is in smaller places such as Britain.
Still, despite the challenges and Mr. Rempel's inability to find himself another John Makepeace elsewhere, Dryrainge is wise to continue to push its product outside Canada, experts say.
"A lot of businesses assume exporting is risky, but I've discovered that is wrong," says Mr. Brown. "Being domestic is risky because all your eggs are in one basket."
There are three stages that companies must go through when they decide to export their products, Mr. Brown says.
The first is to think like an exporter, considering carefully which products will succeed where. The second is to dip your toe in, starting small and carefully vetting business partners, while the third is to accelerate down the path to becoming a global entity.
While Dryrainge is still a long way from becoming a global entity, with annual revenue of about $400,000 and sales of between 25 and 40 units a year, it is very much a hobby industry for Mr. Rempel, whose day job is that of a concrete contractor in Saskatoon.
"We're not selling a product that runs out of the door like bottled water," he says.
While 79 per cent of the world's golf courses are located in the United States, Japan, Canada, England, Australia, Germany, France, Scotland, South Africa and Sweden, Dryrainge has also sold its canopies farther afield. Those countries include Jamaica, Austria, Norway and Dubai.
Selling abroad can bring extra considerations, such as shipping and local regulations and taxes. For instance, in the Middle East, Mr. Rempel has additional paperwork to fill out, and shipping the units there costs more – up to $3,000. The canopies can also spend up to three months sitting in customs.
To limit customs bottlenecks and local taxes when selling in Britain, Mr. Rempel has found a local factory to construct the stainless steel frames that form the underbelly of his canopies. That leaves customers paying to ship over the much lighter tarpaulins, which represent just $2,500 of the $12,000 total cost.
One strategy companies selling abroad can take is to seek local endorsements. Dryrainge recently signed a two-year endorsement deal with former U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell, who runs his own academy in Spain. Mr. Campbell actually contacted Dryrainge about using its product, and though Mr. Rempel says his experience with using celebrity endorsers hasn't always been of great benefit, Mr. Campbell's ties in Spain make it a worthwhile connection in a new market.
"Local partners tend to be key," says Mr. Dunlop. "If you have a fabulous product, things should be fine."