To apply for the 2013 HSBC International Business Awards, or to nominate a company you admire, click here
The scope is mind-boggling. Every day, Bassett & Walker International (BWI) buys agricultural commodities from producers in Mexico, and Latin and South America. Then it sells them to processors in some 40 countries. The beef, fish, chicken, pork and soya feed the world; the enzymes and proteins from the dairy side make its drugs. It’s a specialized area—BWI is among only about 100 companies who do half a trillion dollars in trade every year. Still, CEO Nicholas Walker defines it simply. “Say a farmer in Argentina ships a cow to a factory,” he explains. “At the same time, we have a buyer in Japan who wants to sell it to McDonald’s. The producer in Argentina says, ‘Yeah, sell it to Japan, but we want our money right now.’ We pay him in pesos for that beef, which is frozen. We put it on a vessel and ship it to that buyer and he turns it into hamburgers.” At every step, BWI assumes the risk. “If a boat sinks, and that has happened, it is our problem,” Walker says. For his company, the money is in price differentials. For his clients, Walker adds, “The value proposition is enormous.”
Based in Toronto, BWI was honoured in May at the HSBC International Business Awards for excellence in doing business in Latin America.
BWI CEO, Nicholas Walker
Founded in 1992, BWI boasts team members who have backgrounds in economics and farm production; people who understand the food chain and can talk turkey in many languages. “In BWI’s world, markets are interrelated, and without borders,” Walker says. “The key to success is the development of deep, long-lasting relationships with confidence, mutual respect, understanding of needs and trust.” Travel is also a given: Walker circles the globe three times a year. “For fun,” he says, “I like to work.”
And he likes to change the face of his business. To squeeze out the waste in the process—ensuring that farmers get more money for their goods and consumers get better pricing—he developed the Online Trading System (OTS), a web-enabled platform that cuts out intermediaries. “One pound of beef had something like 77 hands touching it from producer to consumer,” Walkers says. “We have reduced that process by 60%.” OTS allows BWI to call for tenders, for example, as well as access documentation requirements and track hundreds of shipments at any given time. It also allows every client in the pre- and post-trading chain to log in and “see what’s happening,” he says, 24/7.
In his 25 years in the business, Walker reports another important development: people are eating better. He cites the Food and Agricultural Organization’s findings to support his belief that, as emerging markets develop, people turn from beans to chicken. “The diet in Central America, for example,” he says, “improved after foreign investment came in. That trend we identified early in the game.”
As for his company’s challenges, Walker explains that, unlike in mining and gas commodities or gold, “we provide physical commodities, cash commodities that are being used for human sustenance and everyone requires them in a market that is growing every day.”
And if a ship sinks, Walker says, “We have to adapt to risks very quickly. BWI has done that quite successfully with our partners, such as the banking relationships we have and our service providers.”
His advice to others? “The only way for companies that are seeking to expand their businesses outside Canada is to get out, meet partners, invest the time and the money, get a very deep understanding of clients’ needs, and whether or not your services fit those needs.” And make your work your fun.