Taking part in Friday afternoon’s session of The Boardroom, TradeMalta Chairman Stephen Sultana stresses that the idea of a company going international nowadays is a far broader term than it used to be.
“Today, internationalisation does not only mean exporting abroad. It can mean setting up production facilities abroad for your company, setting up sales offices, distribution networks and other networks overseas.”
Formed as a public-private partnership between the Government of Malta, currently under the remit of the Ministry for Economy, Investment and Small Businesses, and the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry, TradeMalta is dedicated to helping Malta-based businesses go international.
Mr Sultana is an international marketer in the private sector with over 25 years’ experience in exports and international business. He is also a former CEO of MaltaPost and former General Manager of the Malta External Trade Corporation (METCO), the predecessor of TradeMalta.
Shedding light on the kind of companies which seek out TradeMalta’s services, Mr Sultana shares that they hail from a wide range of industries, such as food products, information technology, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and more.
He says that the various companies are at differing stages of internationalisation, from novice exporters and would-be exporters, to companies which are highly experienced, some of which even have production and distribution facilities overseas.
“The broad range of companies is a unique attribute of TradeMalta, as we bring together companies with different levels of experience. This is important when travelling on trade missions – the exchange of information and knowledge between companies is as valuable as the services offered by TradeMalta.”
The public-private organisation mainly helps companies in their internationalisation efforts on three fronts: networking, co-financing and sharing knowledge and information.
Asked by The Boardroom presenter and business-writer Jo Caruana about whether the majority of companies seeking TradeMalta’s services are in the manufacturing industry, Mr Sultana says that in reality, about 40-50 per cent of companies using TradeMalta’s services actually hail from the services sector.
He acknowledges that it is easier, however, to quantify the movements of export businesses as opposed to companies in the services sector.
“In the case of services, activity is a bit harder to quantify because of the intangible nature of most services,” he says.
Onto the difficult year 2020 has proved to be due to the pandemic, Mr Sultana shares his personal experience as somebody working full time in the private sector in the export market.
“The past months have been quite hard and what I found is that it is not just our company which are taking the time to reassess strategies employed in different markets. Many companies are contemplating product development for when things normalise.
“Another observation which we made was that not all exporters were impacted the same way. Some were dramatically hit, while in others we held our own, and in other markets we actually exceeded expectations.”
Turning to broader COVID-19 induced challenges for companies seeking to internationalise, Mr Sultana stresses that it is difficult to carry out international marketing from behind a desk.
“Ultimately, to really understand a market you wish to operate in, you must physically go, talk to the various players, speak to competitors and see what the situation on the ground is.
“You could have a product that is very successful in one country, but without adaptation, the same product fails in the next country.”
If COVID-19 has not been bad enough, the impending Brexit deadline is another cause for concern for many local players who do business in the UK, whether it is exporting to the UK market or importing materials.
Mr Sultana’s business deals in exporting products to the UK, and, he said that without a doubt, the biggest concern has been uncertainty. He says that clients in the UK have already been ordering fewer products due to the uncertainty of Brexit, meaning the effects of the divorce between the EU and the UK have already been felt, before the final papers have gone through.
“If we knew that the outcome would be a hard Brexit, or not, plans could be made. As things are today there are still many question marks. Logic would say that since the EU and UK are so interdependent, a deal would be reached where trade flows as usual.
“If it’s a hard Brexit and barriers are in place for both imports and exports, there could be issues. Given the volume of trade between Malta and the UK, I would say there will be issues for local businesses which import from the UK, not just in retail, but industrial products and materials for manufacturing, which could in turn impact Malta’s exports.”