One recent Friday afternoon, an urgent fax came in to metals dealer Clive Bush's office here, 30 miles south of London, from a shipbuilder in Dunkirk, in northern France. How soon could he supply 100 meters (109 yards) of 16-inch stainless steel pipe?
The following Tuesday, a truck loaded with the pipe pulled into the Dunkirk shipyard. "We are doing for them what we are doing for any United Kingdom client," says Mr. Bush, southeast England manager for "aalco," a metals distributor.
For Bush, though, southeast England no longer stops at the English Channel. For the past two years, with the engineering sector in a slump and his business suffering as a result, he has been trying to treat the Channel as nothing more than a river, and France as part of his target market.
"It began to occur to me that across this narrow strip of water, which is now crossed by a rolling track, was a whole new place marked only on maps with 'There be dragons,' " he recalls with a smile. "We couldn't see why we weren't active in our next-nearest market."
He hasn't found it an easy market to get into. Swanley may be only a few hours from Dunkirk, if you take the Channel tunnel, but distances can be deceptive. The French have different ways of doing business ("If circumstances change, they think they can change the deal," sighs Bush. "You just have to understand that and get used to it.") The whole metals-distribution business is structured differently. And, of course, they speak French.
"France would not have been my first choice" of a foreign market to explore, Bush acknowledges. "But France is just there," 22 miles away. Now he is taking private French lessons, so that at least he can order from the menu at business lunches with potential French clients, and is treating what was once a foreign country as his backyard. "It's becoming easier and easier to do business outside the UK now," he says. "The borders are coming down."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society