For developing countries in need of efficient, inexpensive housing, a Mississippi-based company with its International Sales Office in Memphis, Tennessee, has just the thing: domes. Domes International Inc. manufactures its bulbous structures out of molded fiberglass. Some look like igloos, others like marshmallows. Among the most attractive benefits of fiberglass domes is their low maintenance. Termite resistant and energy efficient, they also protect against dangerous weather conditions, including severe monsoons that cause horrific damage and loss of life in certain areas of the world.
When Domes International decided to expand internationally, it was already selling houses to the U.S. military for faraway bases on tropical islands. Director of International Business Development and Marketing Steve Pope was assigned the job. He is also president of World Discoveries Inc., an export-import and international manufacturing and marketing consulting company based in Memphis. The company is contracted with Domes for its global manufacturing operations.
Pope contacted his local Export Assistance Centers in Memphis, Tennessee, and Jackson, Mississippi. After talking with trade specialists at the centers, Pope and his company decided to focus on India. The combined forces of the U.S. Commercial Service in Mumbai, Delhi, and the United States provided Pope with market research and help on doing business with the Indian government, including contacts within the government who might be interested in purchasing domes. Those contacts included officials from Gujarat state who needed to house thousands of homeless families. The state placed an order, and later the Indian military did as well.
Pope and his partners soon realized they needed a facility in India to assemble components shipped from the United States. Having a local facility is a “win-win,” Pope says, because the “jobs created help the local economy, while we benefit stateside by providing the higher-end components.” The Commercial Service then helped Domes International apply for a $1.2 million U.S. government-backed loan from the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). Then, when the first shipment of the fiberglass molds and machinery got hung up in customs, Commercial Service officials helped retrieve them and arranged for operating permits and inspection protocols. Additionally, the U.S. Commercial Service offices in Mumbai, New Delhi, and Ahmedabad, India, helped obtain some necessary product registration certificates from the Indian Ministry of Commerce.
These early experiences led to more sales as Domes International began to adapt the product to fit local needs. Domes can be used as offices, schools, military barracks, and warehouses. A religious group is interested in replacing more expensive marble temples with fiberglass domes. You never know what new opportunities might arise when you’re on the ground observing what people need.
In another case, a government client for a school building pointed out that people in one part of the state considered round structures with a hole in them as kind of a temple of doom and gloom. “Local folks wouldn’t go near them. So we developed flat fiberglass panels and added ribs and steel struts for strength.” It became a more acceptable box, not a dome, Pope explains.
“We couldn’t have done any of this without the U.S. Commercial Service,” says Pope, who also called on the organization to make inroads into Afghanistan, Niger, Nigeria, and other countries in the Middle East and Africa. “Thanks to the Commercial Service, we have opened our factory in Ahmedabad and are selling houses, schoolrooms, and warehouses in the surrounding area.”
One lesson Pope has learned is to be flexible. “Our initial business plan was based on the then current oil prices.” The company’s raw materials are 70 percent petroleum based. “We went [to India] expecting to sell lots of single-family homes, and by the time we finally opened our factory, oil prices had doubled, and hence our raw materials as well. We discovered the better market was local governments and the military. We had to go there, make this discovery, then adjust on the fly.
“There’s no doubt that Domes International is a better company as a result of our experience in India,” Pope says. “We are much more flexible and also innovative. The client wanted a less expensive structure, so we went back to our labs and came up with an insulation solution that met their needs. Now we use these discoveries to improve core products and to offer more variations. We are much more confident going into new situations—listening, adapting, and finding the best solution. That we’ve been able to transform through our experiences overseas in just a few years is amazing.”
Is your company considering entering an emerging market? If so, here are some things you can do: