Bringing home lessons from the ‘Atlanta Way’

Trade: Julie Underwood, North East England Chamber of Commerce international trade director, shares experiences from a fruitful recent trade mission to the US city of Atlanta including how to win tech business and its inspirational Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative

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It’s not often when you go on a global trade mission that you get a chance to say it was a home from home but my recent visit to Atlanta felt very much like that.

This edition of Contact has the theme of people and the business community in that part of the United States was very much centred on helping each other to succeed and build networks. It was very similar to how we work to support our members, who in turn, support each other as well.

One of the reasons I think it was such a welcoming city is that despite it being a massive financial player in the US economy, with the highest density of Fortune 500 companies, it doesn’t get the volume of visitors of San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York, as these three major cities are often the first port of call.

The area is also proud of its uniqueness in being so open and supportive, indeed it regularly talks about the ‘Atlanta Way’. Just as we know we are in our region, the businesspeople there have a similar warmth in their attitude to each other.

During the trade mission itself, not only did we get great help from our hosts, which included household names like Virgin and CNN (where I got to do a spoof newscast and weather report) our own businesses were brilliant.

Everyone on the trade mission was automatically out of their comfort zones. They are away from their own workplaces, homes and families and have to be ready to do business 24/7, yet they were all readily sharing advice and tips with others on the mission. It was an intense, action-packed five days but so worthwhile.

Our businesses were able to learn a huge amount in a short amount of time and the support of everyone on the mission was very much part of that achievement.

The focus of the trip was the tech sector and we had great help from two of our partner members Womble Bond Dickinson and Sage plc, who have bases in Atlanta.

All of the advice from the entrepreneurs and business leaders over there was first class. For example, they said as a general rule we, as a country, are far too reluctant to actually ask for the business at the end of a sales pitch. The good news is that we are apparently pretty good at selling ourselves, Americans love our quirkiness, but we need to close that deal.

Other really beneficial advice was very pertinent to our tech companies. The Atlanta tech business leaders said they take a specific approach to winning work, where they really bottom out the customer’s problem. Once it is crystal clear what needs to be done, the consultant or firm then packages up their skills and services to present a solution which is very specific to that customer.

In their view, British companies often approach US customers by saying we can do this, this and this, basically giving a list of technical services. The US tech consultants prefer to think of being in partnership with their customers, to solve the problem, or exploit the opportunities together.

We always encourage our businesses on these missions to really do their homework before travelling overseas. It makes a huge difference when you have your ideal contacts ready and primed to meet you.

With our partners at the Department for International Trade we also ensure there are plenty of potentially fruitful meetings and conversations. A number of people on this Atlanta trip reported positive results in terms of connections and future partnerships within days of returning to the UK.

This was my second trip to this city and the first time, in 2017, I had the pleasure of learning about Atlanta’s inspirational Women’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (WEI). This network was a real eye opener. Here at the Chamber we have a determined focus on supporting female entrepreneurs but the WEI took this to another level.

They were passionate about helping to provide the tools to enable women start-ups to succeed. They had identified the need for a number of things such as a designated workspace in a technologically-advanced environment, designed to foster business growth and sustainability.

WEI also realised the benefit of a community designed to support the engagement, interaction and collaboration with fellow women entrepreneurs in a supportive environment.

As with our own Inspirational Females programme of events and our Women’s Advisory Board, they set up a network of experts, seasoned mentors and consultants from the business and entrepreneurship communities serving in an advisory board capacity.

Diversity is so important to us as a Chamber business and we are lucky to have a fantastic range of international trade experts from all over the world who work on the DIT contract and within the Chamber. They include Nynzi Maung, virtual export manager, who has worked in Belgium for a pan-European export campaign to help EU companies export to Japan; Naz Demir, who has worked in Greece, Turkey and USA; our international trade manager, German-born Maria Dotsch and Italian native Manuel Fantin, who both work with business helping them to export, bring their own knowledge and flair.

“With our partners at the Department for International Trade we also ensure there are plenty of potentially fruitful meetings and conversations. A number of people on this Atlanta trip reported positive results in terms of connections and future partnerships within days of returning to the UK.”

Although the ‘Atlanta Way’ presented a city which many think of as somewhere they could set up home in the US, there seemed to be a lack of involvement of businesses and the wider communities. Although the Metro Atlanta Chamber offers many services similar to our own, in general the scale of the US city doesn’t always lend itself to a similar comprehensive programme of events and awards programmes.

We all regularly get together to highlight our success stories and enjoy the networking with our peers it allows. I think these events undoubtedly contribute to our own close working relationships.

Overall, Atlanta gave us all the chance to look at our region from a distance, learn from their examples and realise we are very much punching above our weight in the region, with even more opportunities to grow. It also, like all trade missions, re- emphasises the importance of relationships built face to face with like-minded people.

Although the companies attending represented the best in field for the advanced technology-based solutions, business is people working together, and always will be.