No Branch Should be an Island #24
A story of discovering why cohesive corporate identity matters
Walk through the doors of any branch in the world of a major retail or restaurant chain, and, within a few moments, you’ll probably forget which country you’re in. They really are all the same. Those sorts of big multinationals have spent millions on brand identity. They’ve established what works for them – possibly from initial good luck, possibly via a painful journey – and replicate it wherever they go.
Not so the offices and factories of other types of business, the ones that don’t have to have a public persona. Yes, the sign over the door and the posters in reception may be the same, but very often, that’s where it stops.
Is that important? We think it is. Every business with international operations should invest a little time and money in establishing the corporate identity that works for it and that it wants to project, and work to ensure that all its branches, wherever they may be in the world, embrace that common style and philosophy. Yes, we must all celebrate the diversity that we enjoy by having people of different races, languages and cultures working with us in our overseas operations, but surely we want all of them to want to embrace us and the quality of our business too.
This podcast is a solo by our host, Oliver Dowson, who tells a story from his early international business life and how he experienced the “missed trick” of a failure to adopt a common corporate identity, not only in the company he then worked for but in others that he visited. It’s an entertaining story with a moral.
You’ll also find his article expanding on his conclusions, “The Elusive Prize”, on the Grow through International Expansion website – click here
Note – this is not a word for word exact transcript. It has been edited for easier reading.
I’m Oliver Dowson. I want to tell you a story about an experience I had on the very first day I ever went to work in London, for a big multinational computer company.
They don’t exist any more, so there’s nothing I can say to injure the innocent. But way back then, a long time ago, on my very first day I received a telex. We didn’t have e-mails in those days. It came from my new opposite number, an executive in the head office in Minneapolis in the United States. He was asking for some statistics about the British subsidiary.
Well, I’d just started – I didn’t have any statistics, and I didn’t know where to go and get them. An hour or so later, the Finance Director, who was my immediate boss, came along and asked me how I was getting on, and so I asked him. I said that I didn’t even know anybody knew I was here, but that I’d had this telex from Minneapolis asking me for these statistics – and where do I get them from? He picked up the printout, screwed it up into a ball and tossed it into the bin.
I said “why did you do that? Wasn’t I supposed to answer it?” He said “no, not now”.
He said “Wait until you get a third reminder. If you get a third reminder, then come and talk to me and we’ll decide what we should actually tell Head Office. They’ll probably forget, but wait for a third reminder”. “Why is that?” I asked. “Well”, he replied, “these guys in Minneapolis think they know everything and they want everything”.
“But don’t they own the company? Isn’t it their business?”.
“Well it might be American money. But we’re a British company over here”.
I was a bit shocked by the attitude, but there it was.
Over the course of the next year or so, doing the job I was doing, I went to see other offices of that company all over the UK.
One of the things that struck me, that’s also relevant to this story, is that apart from seeing the same logo behind the reception desk, I don’t think anyone would ever have known it was the same company. The attitudes were different. The style was different. You’d even think they did different things, even though that wasn’t true.
Later on I got promoted and took over the US department, as my US counterpart left and the management obviously thought I was doing OK at the time. So they gave me the world to look after. I went to Minneapolis, and I saw the the Headquarters of the company for myself. Boy, it was exciting, it was dynamic, it was great. They were doing all sorts of things. And none of this news had ever reached London. Well, it certainly hadn’t reached me. Maybe the news had reached London printed on the telex, and just been screwed up and thrown in the bin…
In that job I also got to visit European subsidiaries. Again, every one of them felt different. It felt that they were missing a trick, but it wasn’t my business as such and so I wasn’t too concerned.
I forgot about it until years later, by which time I was running my own business. I went to visit what was then a new customer of ours in Detroit USA. We got on really well. I spent all day there. Towards the end of the day, one of the managers I was talking to, Joe, said “You’re European. Perhaps you can help me with a problem.”
When he told me, I had a sense of déjà vu. This guy had been asking his opposite number in their German subsidiary for some statistics. By now of course e-mail existed, so this was done with e-mail. I asked how many times he’d sent the email. He said twice, but still hadn’t had a reply. Tongue in cheek, I told him that, based on my own experience, he needed to write three times, so he should send another reminder.
I went back a week later. He said “Do you want the good news or the bad news?”
“OK, tell me”.
“They answered. In German”.
He’d been waiting for me to come in to translate, thinking that as I was European, I could cover all European languages. They might have had email in those days, but certainly Google Translate didn’t exist, and there were no friendly German speakers in Detroit. So translation was a bit more of a challenge.
As it happens, I had a trip planned to Frankfurt the following week and so I asked if I could perhaps go and visit the subsidiary there on Joe’s behalf. I could ask them for the facts and figures that Joe wanted and maybe negotiate to get them for him. He agreed straight away.
It was very interesting visit. As I sat in reception. I watched somebody putting up posters from the American parent company – but then carefully sticking labels over the company logo on every one of them. Then I was greeted by the local manager, the person who’d actually sent this German reply to Joe in Detroit. As you can probably anticipate, he spoke wonderful English.
His attitude was again basically the same – we’re a German company, it might be American money but we do things our own way.
Before you run away with the idea that it’s just nasty Europeans being anti-American, I can assure you that it’s not. I also visited and spent a lot of time over the years with US subsidiaries of two of Germany’s largest companies and I met exactly the same attitudes.
They were saying that they were just representing their own local company branch or subsidiary, the American one in this case, and what Head Office in another country (in this case Germany) thought was irrelevant to them. In retrospect, this was really quite sad but salutary experiences, that later proved very useful to me.
When I expanded my own business internationally, I made a point of trying to ensure inclusiveness from the start. For example, making sure that we made ways in which everyone in every office could act as part of a team with all those far-flung colleagues that they might never meet in foreign countries with their own culture and languages. I think that travelling internationally is wonderful. My greatest joy in business life is actually meeting people from all over the world. So it always comes as a surprise to me when I ever meet people who just want to stay home.
I tried to make sure that people travelled between international offices so that they could actually meet each other. We were a financially poor company in those days – it was more or less a startup. Travel was much more expensive in real terms than it is today. So we were very limited in what we could do, but we did what we could. I think it worked.
Technology has moved on now so much in the last 20 years that things have changed. There’s been a push towards video conferencing for a long time, but 20 years ago or more when it was new it was actually more expensive than flying. I remember having to go to one of the only video conference studios in London in order to do a video conference with a company in Scotland. I think it costs them something like £5000 for a 30 minute video conference. Now, however, we’ve got tools like Skype, Zoom and WebEx. With any computer, even with your mobile phone, it’s easy to see the people you’re working with and talking to on the other side of the world. It certainly makes engaging with them easier, and I wouldn’t go back to the old days for anything. It’s great technology, and it’s really useful, but I don’t think it’s a substitute for physically going to visit. And I don’t think it solves the engagement problem.
More recently I worked with a company that was really successful at what they did. They wanted to expand, and they had accumulated a lot of cash, so they used it to buy companies that they thought were complementary to what they did. For them, merger and acquisition was their fast route to international expansion. However, none of the companies they bought – and there were about a dozen of them – ever became a real part of the business. You still hear optimists talking about mergers and acquisitions as “making the whole greater than the sum of the parts”.
This one was the opposite. They lost value. A lot of mergers just don’t work. The big successful parents thought that their new subsidiaries would be thrilled to be part of a larger family and that they would gain a lot. The executives in those subsidiaries bought into it. But the rest of the staff didn’t. They just thought the new parent company was interfering. They spent a lot of time on video conferences, but they never met them. They had meetings and video conferences all day long every day. However, the people I met in the international offices told me that it always felt that Head Office was talking to them rather than with them. Only rarely did somebody from HQ actually go and visit. When they did, they mostly sat in meetings during the working day and escaped to their hotels at night.
If you want to get engagement you need to listen. And you need to socialise too. People may never like you, and they may never be your friends, but you’ll learn a lot from them by seeing them outside the working environment. You learn so much, and you can have a good time doing it. More importantly, they will get to understand the business better and build relationships. So if you’re running an international business, you need to get out there, and see and be seen. Above all, you need to make all your colleagues all over the world genuinely feel part of a single family as best as you can.
My own businesses were small. I doubt I ever succeeded as well as I would have liked. But I know that we did better than most. And we had a much better international relationship than all the big multinationals that I visited over the years (that’s actually more than half of the Fortune 100).
I have a lot of other tips coming out of this. I’ve put them all in an article “The Elusive Prize” that you can find on the growinternational.org website. I hope you’ve enjoyed this chat, and that you read and enjoy the article. If you’d like to talk, get in touch with me. I’d love to hear from you.
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