We might be a small business based in Corby, a mostly unheard of yet rapidly growing town tucked away in the northeast corner of Northamptonshire, but we’re frequently approached by architects based in Europe and sometimes even further afield.
They’re usually looking for a supplier who can help them with renovating old, listed and prestigious buildings. These projects can be really interesting to work on compared to our day-in day-out business because they can have unusual requirements or be in exotic locations like the project we completed last year. Yet in all my years, I‘ve never received an email quite like the one I got on a summer’s day in 2014.
As I went through the latest emails that had come in overnight, I eventually got to one from an architect based in Moscow. This really caught my eye. We’ve shipped our foam to many different countries around the world but not Russia. Curiosity well and truly piqued, I read on with anticipation.
I was excited. Despite never having worked with a Russian architect before, I quickly realised this was exactly the type of project we could deliver. Przemyslaw agreed with me, we could do this. All that seemed to be different was the scale of the order and the destination city. Or so we thought.
I got back in touch and started a positive and revealing conversation. It turned out they’d sent the same enquiry to several foam companies in the UK but none of them had replied. I wasn’t surprised. A lot of UK foam companies can be far too cautious when it comes to exporting and taking on unusual orders, especially from people they’ve never dealt with before.
Not us though. We are entrepreneurs at heart and love a challenge. Risk isn’t something to be avoided at all costs, just mitigated.
The architect asked us to sign a Confidentiality Agreement surrounding one or two aspects of the order, and it was at that point I discovered where the foam would end up. It was a very old and very prestigious building indeed.
The foam was heading for a room in the Grand Kremlin Palace! Originally built in 1838 by Tsar Nicholas I, and the largest structure in the Kremlin, it cost 11 million roubles to build. During the 1990s, a further one billion dollars was spent renovating it, and some renovation work was still being completed (which is where our foam would come in).
The Grand Palace contains dazzling reception halls, a ceremonial red staircase, private apartments of the tsars, and the lower storey of the Resurrection of Lazarus church (1393), which is the oldest structure in the Kremlin. I couldn’t believe it. Przemyslaw didn’t believe it either.
By this stage, there was a definite buzz of “We’re going to supply the Kremlin!” working its way round the office, a great talking point during coffee breaks. My mind was racing ahead. The Kremlin is a vast building and I wondered if there might also be a chance to renovate other parts of the same building in the future. I had to keep reminding myself, one step at a time…
Yes, the detail of the order was understood, the confidentiality agreement was in place and the formal contracts had been signed, but we hadn’t received any payment. One of my firm adages in business is “an order isn’t an order, until it’s been paid for”.
We certainly like to keep an open mind when it comes to payment terms but in this instance, since we’d had no previous trading experience with them and they were in a different time zone with different business customs and laws, we asked for payment in full upon placing the order. In return, we’d offer them a 3% discount.
Being aware they hadn’t heard back from any other UK suppliers and that they were operating within a very tight time-frame, we felt confident they would agree. I sent off the email and waited for a reply.
You can imagine the excitement (and relief), when we logged onto our bank account the next day and saw the funds in our bank account. Yes! Stage one was done, now was the really important part – we had to fulfil the order. My only slight disappointment was that I knew we wouldn’t get to see the foam installed.
The architect was going to send a Russian freight company to collect the materials directly from our factory in Corby. When it arrived in Moscow a few days later, the architect called us to confirm everything was in order and how happy they were.
From a profitability and investment perspective, the value of the contract was well over £100,000, which at the time was around 10% of our annual turnover. That made it an extremely important contract because the profit generated allowed us to invest in a specialist CNC foam cutting machine, and a new laminating process.
We also bought a new foam handling truck. All three items have really benefited the company in the following years, helping make us even more efficient. There was also enough profit left over to give everyone a bonus, which for me, is very important. Without such a loyal and highly skilled team, we simply wouldn’t be able to respond to these rare and valuable opportunities and build the business in the way we want to.
I have to admit, I still get a slight sense of anticipation about what might be inside my inbox each day too. Will it be Mexico, Mauritius or even Mongolia dropping me a line this time? Or perhaps Moscow again? Who knows!
Further reading: Business implications of Ramadan