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Sometimes it takes many years of effort to locate and develop overseas markets for your product. But it can happen a lot quicker than that—if you’re lucky enough to find the right relationship. Big-John Tree Manufacturing was lucky. The Arkansas-based company manufactures large pieces of hydraulic equipment used to dig up and relocate trees. The company has been in business since 1976.
It’s a niche product, but one that landscapers, construction companies, mining companies—anyone doing major infrastructure work that involves moving lots of earth—would find extremely useful. A Big-John transplanter can preserve a tree and its root structure with a 95% survival rate—compared to about 50% with other methods. It’s also a big-ticket item. In the U.S. they sell from $21,000 for the smaller model up to US$105,000 for the top-end unit, which can move a tree with a trunk up to 38 cm in diameter.
Five years ago Big-John CEO Charles Blankenship wasn’t thinking about international expansion. He and his team were mostly doing business in the U.S. and Canada. In previous years they’d had some success with a UK distributor, resulting in sales in half a dozen countries in Europe and the Middle East. But eventually the relationship petered out, and Blankenship wasn’t particularly in a hurry to find a replacement.
A chance meeting in the autumn of 2007 changed everything. At a Las Vegas concrete expo, Blankenship’s former son-in-law happened to meet a representative of an export management company, an engineer who thought he saw the future. He predicted that the business of tree transplanting was going to take off. The company was Dorian Drake International, based in White Plains, New York. Big-John and Dorian Drake signed an agreement in 2008.
Chris Canellas, a group manager at Dorian Drake, says timing was important. Half the company’s business had recently vanished when a supplier abruptly cancelled a deal, so a new product line was particularly welcome.
But Big-John didn’t exactly fit into any of their product groups. They had little experience with hydraulic equipment. In addition, the tree transplanter would be the most expensive item in the product line. “I had my doubts,” says Canellas, “and the owner of the company had his doubts.”
Those doubts turned out to be justified—at first. The Dorian Drake team went after what they thought would be low-hanging fruit. They put the product on their website, did an email blast introducing the Big-John line to their customers and assembled a team that made international sales calls. Nothing happened.
Next they shelled out a wad of money for a list of nurseries in Germany, Holland and the UK. They hired extra help—it took hundreds of hours to enter the names into their database—then sent out an online brochure. “Nothing,” Canellas said. “Zero.”
In 2009 they tried another tack, exhibiting at a construction exposition in Moscow. Dorian Drake paid for a flashy booth, posters, shiny literature. The tab was around $20,000. After a week, they had nothing to show for it.
They also sent an employee to a couple of conferences sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in San Francisco and Pittsburgh, where commercial officers from various U.S. consulates could learn about the product so they could promote it when they went back overseas. Canellas recalls the result: “Zilch.”
Finally Dorian Drake got a break.
In early 2010 the company sold a Big-John transplanter to Essar, an Indian construction company, which in turn sold it to the forestry department in the state of Gujarat. On a January day, a crew demonstrated the equipment to a rapt crowd. The onlookers watched while four yellow, spoon-shaped blades penetrated deep into the soil, then quickly and cleanly lifted the tree and its root ball straight out of the ground. The tree was then tilted to a horizontal position and loaded onto a Mercedes-Benz truck bed.
“The response was overwhelming,” says Canellas. “Crowds of people came running down the street to see what was going on. It was like they had seen a UFO.”
That’s when the regional sales manager for Asia Pacific had an epiphany. She realized the Big-John transplanter can’t be explained over the phone or in a brochure. It has to be seen to be believed.
Since then, that’s exactly what Dorian Drake has tried to do. The company has sold six more units in India. Buyers include Gujarat Alkalies and Chemicals, the large steel multinational Jindal Steel, and Adani Mining, a subsidiary of the Adani Group.
With each prospective sale, Dorian Drake plans a demonstration with an actual Big John unit on hand to show off. Sometimes that means striking a deal with a nearby business that already owns a unit nearby. Dorian Drake will offer spare parts or some other inducement so the owner will lend out its equipment for the day. “We can do mailings, we can do trade shows, we can do a billion phone calls, we can get help from the government, but it’s probably going to be fruitless unless people see the machine in action,” Canellas says.
That tactic has worked around the world. In the last four years, Dorian Drake has sold about 45 units, and Big-John’s annual sales have shot up 25% to 30%. In all, the company’s equipment has been sold in 23 countries, with strongest sales in the Middle East, India, and Russia. And Big-John has an eight-minute video on its Website showing a tree transplanter in action, for all the world to see.
Canellas says all it took was the right strategy. “It’s an example of a small manufacturer who should have been exporting a lot more a long time ago,” he says. “There are hundreds if not thousands of manufacturers scattered that have exportable products but don’t know how to do it.”