B.C. Firm Shines Light on Business Dealings Across Atlantic

Former Calgarian tries to market solar-powered product to British, says Doug Alexander

Monday, December 23, 2002

London -- When Art Aylesworth started doing business in Britain, his gung-ho attitude almost scared off clients.

"There is a certain amount of cowboy in me," the ex-Calgarian admits as he swigs a cappuccino at a cafe in London's bustling Waterloo Station. "Bullets are shooting from my gun as I pull it out of the holster."

Problem is, the Brits don't like cowboys. They prefer to tread carefully, learn about their associates, and even socialize before settling into business.

"It's about getting to know each other," says the CEO of Victoria-based Carmanah Technologies Inc.

It took time to learn the differences between Canada and Britain, but Aylesworth says he has caught on after two years of jetting between Victoria and London.

"I've had to turn my volume down, turn my speed down," the 50-year-old says. "When I come here now I change gears."

Understanding these subtle differences is crucial for the success of this small B.C. company, which designs, manufactures and supplies solar-powered LED (light-emitting diode) lighting systems for marine, road, rail and transit applications.

After six years of perfecting its solar-powered products, this publicly traded company is directing its energy overseas.

Last month, Carmanah's top engineer arrived to establish the company's first foothold in the United Kingdom -- a home office in his rented house outside London.

The next step, Aylesworth assures, is to set up shop in Britain's capital. "I'm itching to do that," he says. "Our plan absolutely is, sooner rather than later, to have an entity in the U.K. that will serve as a gateway to Europe."

It's a big step for a company born from an inventor's frustrations at sea seven years ago.

Carmanah was established in 1996 after founder, David Green, sought a way to keep the anchor lights from his sailboat from draining his battery -- an annoyance he faced while sailing back from Fiji. He invented a solar-powered light that could withstand the harsh marine weather -- an invention that illuminated the path to a profitable business years later.

Today, Carmanah has more than 50,000 of its lights shining worldwide, steady growth, and anticipated revenues of $6 million this year.

The company has become a leader in self-contained lighting products for marine navigation and hazard marking and its technology has expanded to other solar-powered applications - from school crossing flashers to lighted bus stop signs.

Carmanah products have already made inroads into Britain.

The southwest English city of Bristol spent $250,000 for 150 crossing flashers last month.

But it's the dealings with London Bus Services Ltd. -- the world's largest public transit body -- that excites this company. Carmanah is one of two firms to have designed a solar-powered LED lighting system to illuminate bus stops for London's transit authority. Aylesworth hopes Carmanah's system, which is being tested at 25 locations across London this winter, will lead to a potential $18-million deal to light up the city's 12,000 bus stops.

Cracking the U.K. market -- and learning the differences from Canada -- has been a learning process for Carmanah's people.

Aylesworth's only experience with another country before Britain had been the United States -- and they do things differently.

"Here there's a reluctance, there's an awful lot of consultation and a lot of consensus-taking," he said. "The British aren't typically loud and their perspective of the Americans is 'too loud, too confident, too cocky'."

Because of this, Aylesworth stresses his Canadian roots, which often draws better treatment.

British negotiation tactics are also different.

"They want the best and they're not adverse to negotiating, in an eloquent way, to step it down," Aylesworth says.

Britain represents a significant market that plays heavily into Carmanah's future, enough to justify branching out across the Atlantic.

"Our two primary objectives are to compete effectively and give everyone involved in the process an adequate level of comfort in our commitment," Aylesworth says. "And we thought that sending over our head of engineering demonstrates that commitment."

Carmanah's Mark Harold, who has an MBA and a Masters in engineering, was appointed that position -- along with a new title, "Business Development Manager -- Europe."

He relocated to Britain with his wife and 21-month-old son on Nov. 1 and settled in the town of Weybridge, a 30-minute train journey from London.

The Harolds have already endured inattentive customer service, poor food, inflated prices (even the Brits dub this country 'Rip-off Britain') and needless bureaucracy.

Their first setback was the day they arrived, jet-lagged from an eight-hour flight. Harold had to withdraw $11,000 from his credit card to get the keys to their leased house because a money transfer from Canada hadn't cleared the British banking system.

"Things seemed to be a little more bureaucratic," he observed. "When doing something they follow the letter of the law."

It also took two weeks for the national telecom company to install a broadband Internet connection into his home office -- a one-day task in Canada.

"I think in North America we are spoiled, everything is convenient," Harold conceded. "Here, it's not as convenient."

But for him, these are "trivial issues" that haven't detracted from an enjoyable experience so far.

Harold's business dealings in Britain have been positive yet distinct from Canada and other countries he has dealt with -- Israel, Japan, Korea, Singapore and the U.S. -- in previous jobs.

"I find it a little more personal doing business here, the relationship is a little more important," he said. "I feel that here you spend a lot of time getting to know someone . . . there's no such thing as a quick lunch."

He finds the British professional but reserved, cautious and less likely to open up, initially.

"Once you crack the barrier, they're very hospitable, but it's just getting beyond that faÇade," he said.

While Harold is getting hands-on experience with his industry's movers and shakers in Britain and Europe, Carmanah's CEO admits he's still learning how to do business globally.

But Aylesworth understands the importance of mastering the nuances of another culture -- no matter how similar it seems on the surface -- and embracing new methods.

"Knowing the subtle differences that exist will mean the difference between being successful or not," he says.

"It's our job to change, not theirs," he adds. "You have to adapt to their means of doing business, it's not their job to adapt to you."