Friends in far places

Written by Deborah Aarts

In 2004, Brad Marchant was hungry for his industrial wastewater treatment and recycling firm to get a toehold in China. The CEO of Vancouver-based BioteQ Environmental Technologies Inc. had tried hiring independent agents, but had yet to win crucial introductions with potential clients. That all changed after a contact suggested he enlist the services of the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS).

Marchant contacted a commissioner in Beijing, who arranged introductions with several prospective customers—one of which went on to form a successful joint venture with BioteQ. Best of all? The work done by the TCS came at no charge; all BioteQ had to cover was Marchant’s travel costs. “Our trade commissioner has been absolutely critical to our ability to do business in China,” he says.

The TCS is, in essence, a free means by which Canadian companies can tap international markets. Yet, many global-minded entrepreneurs fail to take advantage of the service, either because they are wary about getting involved with government or because they simply don’t know what it can do for them. It’s worth taking a closer look. As those who’ve used the TCS demonstrate, trade commissioners can be your best business ally in foreign markets.

Run by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) and funded by tax dollars, the TCS is something of a one-stop shop for companies looking to do business beyond Canada’s borders. Its almost 750 commissioners work out of 18 offices in Canada and 156 abroad. Some represent an entire country or region, while others focus on a particular industry, such as the tech-sector specialists based in Palo Alto, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley. Their work covers everything from helping research whether a market has potential to introducing prospective business partners to resolving conflicts.

For Dean Pelley, introductions have been the most valuable function provided by the service. When the CEO of St. John’s, Nfld.-based Mad Rock Marine Solutions Inc. was struggling to sell his company’s marine-evacuation equipment into Norway, a commissioner in Oslo helped Pelley set up meetings with several companies. Mad Rock has since used the service heavily to help it connect with buyers as it has expanded around the world.

“You can waste a lot of time poking around and trying to find the right person on your own,” says Pelley. Plus, he adds, the federal-government pedigree of the commissioners can do wonders for a small or unknown Canadian firm’s credibility; depending on the foreign jurisdiction, this can dramatically accelerate the deal-making progress.

As valuable as these introductions are, it’s important to note that trade commissioners won’t necessarily hand you your next star client on a silver platter. Toronto-based outerwear manufacturer Canada Goose Inc. used the service to ramp up exports 10 years ago. President and CEO Dani Reiss says that out of every 10 contacts he was given, only one or two really had potential. “They’re not necessarily experts in exactly what your company does. You still have to do your own homework,” Reiss explains. “But they give you a great place to start.”

Commissioners also can help you comply with foreign regulations and bureaucracy. When solidifying BioteQ’s joint venture in China, Marchant used his commissioner to recommend reliable accountants and lawyers. “When you’re dealing with a very different culture,” he says, “it’s essential to get the right connections.”

Finally, commissioners also will help with due diligence. Mike Fata, CEO of Winnipeg-based food processor Manitoba Harvest Hemp Foods and Oils, has used the service to penetrate such markets as the U.S. an The gospel according to bruced Germany. In several cases, commissioners have given him little-known information about a regulation or control that would have severely diminished the perceived opportunity in a foreign market. “That’s very valuable,” says Fata. “Trade commissioners have really been our gateway into exporting.”

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