How I Took the Family Business Global and Grew It to $50 Million

Last Updated Aug 13, 2010 1:02 PM EDT

By Lauren Herring, CEO, Impact Group, St. Louis, Mo.
Today, our company specializes in assisting employees transition in, within, and out of their companies. However, our roots are in the relocation industry. We help families going through a corporate relocation get acclimated to their new homes, and find jobs for the accompanying spouses or partners.

In 2004, we started getting overseas-bound clients. For example, when an American family moved to Shanghai for a year for the father's job, we worked closely with the mother, both before and during the move. In regular phone calls, our employee talked through the complex mix of emotions the mother felt about the move: guilt about uprooting her teenage daughter, stress over her long to-do list, and concern about putting her own career on hold. Once they were in Shanghai, we helped with items large (assisting the wife in making personal and business connections) and small (finding a laundry service that met the husband's expectations).

As we gained more experience in international relocations, European clients started calling, asking for assistance with transitions within Europe. But the end client would often wonder why she was talking to someone in the U.S. about helping her husband find a job in Zurich. It became clear we needed to expand internationally if we were going to continue to provide the level of service we were known for.

Building the right international team
I was about 27 years old at the time; I had been back at the company, which my mother founded, for three years and was overseeing marketing. Starting in 2005 I traveled constantly, drumming up sales leads and trying to find people on the ground to run our overseas operations. At first we concentrated on Switzerland and the U.K., where we had a good client base. Then we began moving into Asia as well.

We opened operations in the U.K. and Switzerland, then in Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. We built a team of both employees and contractors. The key was finding the right people. Initially we posted on or the local equivalent. Over time we relied more on referrals. And we also started recruiting through international coaching associations because we needed people who could handle both life coaching and business or career coaching.

When it came to finding sales leads, I would schedule my trips around important conferences -- like the ones held by the Employee Relocation Council -- and develop connections in person. I knew trying to build business by cold calling from the U.S. wasn't going to work.

Learning the Cultural Cues
I have a passion for international cultures and travel. I had gone to school in Madrid for a period and I've traveled extensively. But doing business overseas is a totally different experience -- which I learned fast.

In Asia, for example, there is real etiquette around how you handle business cards. In the U.S., someone might just toss their business card across the table. But in Asia you are expected to handle it with reverence. So maybe you present your card slowly, holding it with both hands and making a slight bow. And when you take someone's card you should look at it and actually read it, then put it somewhere safe. You never just tuck it in your back pocket. If you did that, they would think you are an ugly American or be offended -- or both.

When I was working in the U.K., it became clear that even though we shared the same language, we didn't necessarily share the same approach to building relationships. The British tend to be more reserved, so I didn't always know what was going on beneath the surface. I was building a relationship with a bank client that already worked with a relocation management company. My services didn't really compete with that firm -- they were complementary -- but there was a perception that I was trying to get in on their territory. We did get the bank's business, but the relationship never reached its full potential. If I had to do it again I would have gotten those other folks involved earlier.

To figure some of this out before I started traveling, I spoke to people I know who work in cultural training firms -- companies that train executives on how business customs differ around the world. And then when I went to Asia I sat back and watched a lot.

Ramping up our business around the world was always exciting, and I love a challenge. Looking back, there are some things I would have done differently, such as hiring sales support in Europe sooner, which would have underscored our commitment to providing local support, helped with any culture clashes, and kept me from running myself ragged. But I was so passionate about what I was doing that I wanted to do it all, and the reality was that I loved every minute of it. Today, we have 150 employees and nearly $50 million in annual sales. All in all, the payoff has been terrific.

When Lauren Herring travels, she finds ways to satisfy her taste for the outdoors, whether that means snowshoeing in France or mountain biking in Switzerland.
-- As told to Amy Barrett


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