CASE STUDY: Vellus Products

THE COMPANY

Is your pet having a bad hair day? Well, Sharon Doherty, president of Vellus Products Inc., can help. Her small Columbus, Ohio-based company makes a line of pet grooming products, including customized shampoos, conditioners, brushing sprays, satin cream, and detanglers.

According to Doherty, shampoos for people don’t work well on pets because animal skin is more sensitive than human skin and is more easily irritated. Most available pet shampoos, though sensitive to the skin, tend to leave hair unmanageable and without the glamour needed for the show dog or pampered pet. Dr. David Tanner, Doherty’s nephew, used his expertise as a chemist in the personal care industry to develop the salon-type formulas that Doherty thought would be good for animal hair and skin. This family-operated company also involves Doherty’s husband, Robert, and daughter, Teryl Hotz.

THE CHALLENGE

Vellus Products’ first export sale occurred in 1993, when a Taiwanese businessperson, after trying the Vellus line, bought $25,000 worth of the company’s products to sell in Taiwan through dog shows. The word was out. “I started receiving calls from people around the world who would hear of our products at dog shows and ask organizers how they could get in touch with me to buy our products,” Doherty recalls. “But I needed a way to find market research and learn more about ways of doing business in these countries.”

THE SOLUTION

Doherty soon tapped the services of the U.S. Commercial Service in Columbus. “As business has grown, I have gone from ordering country profiles to requesting customized export and financing strategies tailored to maximize export potential,” Doherty says.

The Commercial Service relied on its worldwide network and partners such as the Small Business Administration and the state of Ohio to provide customized market research and information on financing and other programs for Vellus. Today, Vellus sells to more than 28 countries. “I credit the Commercial Service for helping me expand my exports, as it would have been much more difficult to do this on my own,” Doherty says.

LESSONS LEARNED

Doherty learned several lessons from her exporting experience:

  • Know whom you are dealing with. “Developing business relationships is critical to successful exporting,” Doherty says. Doherty often gives advice and guidance to her distributors, sharing her knowledge and understanding of importing along with marketing in the dog show network. She says this advice is much appreciated and goes a long way toward building long-term relationships. “Be smart, but humble,” she advises. “Whenever there is a problem, I don’t e-mail; I pick up the phone.”
  • Do a background check on potential business partners. Doherty was once duped by a businessman from another country who said he knew all about the pet market there. She followed some of his advice, and it caused her to lose customers in that country. The experience was a lesson well learned. “Always do a thorough check on your potential business partners,” she says. “Gather as much information as you can. Don’t make any assumptions; the wrong choice can cost your business valuable time and money.” Doherty also notes that it is her business practice to have orders prepaid by the purchaser, and once the bank receives the money, to ship the orders. This practice helps prevent any problems with delinquent payments.
  • Learn the culture. Doherty has become familiar with the cultural aspects of pet care. Vellus shampoos and other products can easily be varied for different grooming techniques. In England, dog exhibitors prefer less pouffy topknots than those on show dogs in the United States, where owners tend to be more exotic with topknots. There also can be different preferences for the look of show dogs.
  • Enjoy the ride. Doherty says that exporting has changed her life. “I love exporting because it has enabled me to meet so many people from other cultures. Exporting has made me more broad minded, and I have developed a great appreciation for other cultures and the way others live their lives,” she says. “You are put in contact with real people on the other side.”

ACTION

Are you ready to promote your product or service in other cultures? Try this advice:

  • Pay attention to the target market’s social customs. People interested in exporting should look closely at the social customs in the country where they would like to do business. Contacting the U.S. Commercial Service office in that country is an excellent way to learn about cultural issues and ways of doing business, and exporters like Doherty have found the customized market reports to be especially helpful. Simply visit www.export.gov or check Appendix B for the nearest U.S. Export Assistance Center, and that office can contact the appropriate Commercial Service post in the country of interest.
  • Use trade shows to promote your products and services. The Commercial Service sponsors U.S. pavilions in many trade shows. Further information on overseas trade shows is available at www.export.gov/tradeevents.
  • Promote your company in target markets. You might also want to advertise in Commercial News USA.
  • The catalog-style magazine is designed to help American companies promote products and services to buyers in more than 145 countries at a fraction of the cost of other advertising options. Each issue reaches an estimated 400,000 readers worldwide. The bimonthly magazine, which is free, is mailed directly to qualified recipients outside the United States and is distributed by Commercial Service personnel at U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the world. See www.thinkglobal.us/.