In this week’s episode of The Boardroom, hosted by Jo Caruana, Anton Buttigieg, CEO of the trade promotion enterprise TradeMalta, spoke about his organisation’s drive to help businesses go international.
Anton Buttigieg is a seasoned business executive who was appointed CEO of the public-private enterprise back in June 2015, and has had a varied career, having worked as an economist at the Central Bank of Malta, in management consultancy at MISCO and business administration and development management at Panta Marketing and Services (Panta Lesco), and as an operations director with Business Leaders Malta.
Recently, he was appointed to the Board of Directors of the European Trade Promotion Organisations’ Association.
Mr Buttigieg started with the whys of internationalisation. “Companies that go international are stronger, more profitable, and last longer.”
He says the advantages of having an international perspective are obvious given the small size of the local market.
As CEO of the main trade promotion entity in Malta, he meets a lot of specialised companies that are capable of selling their products and services to international clients. “They have an international standard,” he says.
“We’ve of course seen an increase in the ICT sector. These companies are born global. But we’ve also seen more and more companies doing consultancies in specific scientific fields, in R&D. They’ve built their experience locally, and now they’re ready to use that experience to grow internationally.”
Mr Buttigieg also commented on the mix of manufacturing and service exports, saying that although 20 years ago the balance leaned more heavily towards the export of goods, nowadays there is a balanced mix.
Turning then to the challenges local businesses face when seeking to establish themselves abroad, Mr Buttigieg quickly identifies the most important one.
“Certainly, the biggest challenge is in correctly identifying the right market to enter and the right people to talk to.”
He firmly believes that the networking aspect is crucial.
“If you’re not talking to the right people, you’re going to realise down the line that you’ve wasted the last few months doing nothing.”
When it comes to EU trade, that challenge is somewhat easier, as EU membership has made it easier to find potential partners, distributers and buyers.
“It’s very different when trying to access new, non-traditional markets. It’s a lot more difficult to identify the right partners and assess the market.”
Internationalisation does not come cheap either. “You need to build a team to handle the international market. You need more money, more resources, more people,” he says, conceding that for those in the early stages of operation, this may not be so easy.
“Financing is key, as are travelling to the market, understanding local culture, meeting potential partners and buyers face to face.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic grounding most aircraft and bringing international travel to an almost complete halt, TradeMalta has adapted its incentives to encourage further digital growth.
“We realised that everyone went online. This is something we had really been wanting to push for a long time, but had found a certain reluctance from companies, so this was a good opportunity to adjust our incentive scheme.”
TradeMalta implemented an online grant for those wishing to internationalise using online platforms like Google or Facebook.
“Let’s say you want to sell a product or service in Saudi Arabia, and you would have used a marketing campaign on traditional media. If you shift that expense online, TradeMalta will refund you part of the cost.”
The mention of Saudi Arabia shifts talk to the south, to the African continent, where TradeMalta is investing in its networks and building capacity in some three or four countries. “We are focusing on a few small markets. There are a lot of opportunities there, and we hope they will serve as stepping stones to other markets down the line.”
Mr Buttigieg says that “from day one” the TradeMalta Board gave the executive team a clear direction – to expand into previously untapped markets.
“And it’s not only us. Other traded promotion entities are doing the same, as is the European Commission.”
The reasons, he says, are obvious.
“Africa is a developing market of 1.3 billion people just south of Malta. We are encouraging partnerships between Maltese and African businesses, where the Maltese can bring their expertise and experience to Africa and work with local markets to grow their business there.”
To that end, TradeMalta is organising virtual trade missions, bringing companies together on digital platform to ease networking, in the hope there is a match between potential partners.
“We are also in touch with governments, chambers of commerce and other trade associations in these markets to try and find interested stakeholders,” he says.
However, Maltese businesses should do their homework before investing too much. “Sometimes we meet companies with a really strong product, but when they go to the market they realise it’s in the wrong package or at the wrong price. At that stage they would have invested heavily, so we urge companies to avoid that mistake.”
“Just because something sells well locally in one format, it does not mean it will sell well in another market in that format.”
Mr Buttigieg closed by encouraging businesses to use the available online tools to start a conversation with other markets, saying that “right now is a great time”.
“There is no harm in trying to establish a new contact in a market you might be in in two or three years’ time. Maintain the relationship, talk on a regular basis, and you might find a real opportunity for growth.”
TradeMalta CEO Anton Buttigieg