Exporting is in our DNA: Sharif Hassam
Sharif Hassam is the Export Manager for xsign. He’s been with the company for 15 years. In a wide-ranging interview, he discusses his time with the business, the importance of being an exporter and the innovation of future products.
What is your role in the business?
I head up our sales division in the Middle East, a key export market. The company has historically exported to the Middle East since its inception in 1999, from Dubai to Qatar and Kuwait. We’ve had some of our largest orders and delivered some of our biggest logistical projects in the Middle East. Our company has had an historical affinity with that area of the world. My role is important to keep those relationships established and develop our sales channels in a market place that provides our company with lots of opportunities.
The Middle East is a challenging market to engage with. A lot of hard work is needed to win an order and the timescales are often protracted. I think it takes a particular type of person with patience and tenacity to win a project in the Middle East. And that’s something I’m quite proud of, having been with the company for such a long time. I think I’ve organically gained those skills and that experience. The key to success with the Middle East market is to integrate in to the culture. I think it would be challenging to recruit someone from outside the company straight in to this role. I think it requires a good knowledge of the company and a good knowledge of the Middle East. I think there’s a huge amount of opportunity and I’d like to see my role continue to develop to the point where I have my own sales team.
What makes it exciting to work at xsign?
When I first joined dlinexsign it was a much smaller company. It had something about it that really appealed to me. It felt agile and I saw a huge amount of opportunity. Although it may have been a smaller company back then, I met with the CEO, Mark Shaw-Smith and I saw straight away the element of export involved and the chance to establish a greater presence, internationally. I wanted a career where there was no ceiling of growth if you worked hard. I know friends and family at other companies and there is a lot of restrictions. If you work hard and do well, you can go anywhere in this company. That feeling is the same today. That has stayed with me from year 1 to year 15. Which is why I choose to work here and why I continue to choose to work here.
What is xsign’s greatest strength?
The product has always been excellent and catered to the market. That makes it easier to engage with key stakeholders. The finish, quality and design of the product has been influenced heavily by Mark Shaw-Smith. His vision for the product set has really led the way. Signs haven’t historically been beautiful or aesthetic. The culture that Mark has created has helped to change people’s perception of sign types and their application. Along with great products, we have great people. I think the team we have now is the best we’ve ever had, both from management and production. The passion people here have for this business shows. The service we offer has continually improved and our customers appreciate that. So, having the right product and the right people is the key to the success of the business.
How do you develop long-term relationships?
Long term relationships with clients are developed almost by default in my line of work. Projects in the Middle East tend to be on a long project cycle. The order cycle from the point I find out about a project to delivering a project can be years. You have to be able to develop long term relationships or you’ll lose business. Just winning a project can take 3 years, and it might be a further year to manufacture and install the signs. One of my projects is about to go in to production, which is currently in to year 4. During that time people move on, so continually developing those relationships is vital for continuity. As contractors and architects move on to other projects and other sites, it is important that you foster relationships so that you are remembered for doing a good job. Although my role is about generating new business, a lot of my business is won through existing relationships. I take an approach of continually finding ways to engage with my stakeholders and finding excuses to pick up the phone or drop them a quick email. I gauge the responses from my stakeholders to ascertain how much communication they do or don’t appreciate. I think it’s important to adjust and adapt your style of communication, depending on what the client has a preference for.
How has export sales changed during your time in the business?
When I joined the company, it was a very indirect sales model. A network of distributors based in various countries were inherited by our previous company in Denmark. They had set up a network selling ironmongery products and hardware such as washroom accessories under the dline banner, and signs became a part of that catalogue of products. It has changed over the years. We have had successes and failures with that indirect sales model. Our product requires a high level of skilled sales work and experience to specify and understand exactly what the customer wants. In an indirect sales model, sometimes our products don’t align entirely with what our distributors are selling; and it’s hard to motivate and engage a sales team which you don’t employ directly. Over the last couple of years, we have been spending more time going directly to market. I now source demand directly from architects and new partners. That provides me with some leads to give to channel partners, but we won’t necessarily rely on them to make a sale. We might use local partners in the Middle East to help us with the planning phase, or to provide samples. So, having local knowledge and expertise on the ground in the Middle East has helped our business, but we are responsible for developing the relationships, establishing connections and talking about our products at a high level.
We’ve also had more work from the US market recently. We have an exclusive relationship across several key US states. That channel works well for us. Our sales model is fluid, based on the customs and means of doing business on a country by country basis. So, an indirect model works well in the US and a mixture of direct and indirect works well in the Middle East. It takes time to establish the right mix. And we have enough information and sales data about the markets that work well and those that are less fruitful. We’ve honed our focus on export markets based on the knowledge we’ve built up.
Why is it important to operate globally?
It has always been in the company’s DNA to be an exporter, from our Danish heritage. We’ve been an exporting company since I joined. I personally think it is one of the core strengths of the company. We’d be missing out on a huge amount of business without being an exporter. Our sales mix of UK vs Rest of the World has seen swings, and in recent years gone by we’ve had years where our export market has been bigger than our UK market. UK government is keen on UK businesses to export globally. “Exporting is great” is a great slogan and we are contributing to the British economy through our export business. For a business of our size and in our industry, it is quite rare to export as much as we do. And that is something that we are proud of and something which is quite exciting for our company and employees.
Why is our business attractive to businesses overseas?
The dline brand is attractive. It has a great history and heritage. We’re a UK-based manufacturer offering a quality product and we receive great feedback about the experience of working with us. Our CEO is an architect and understands the design process and drives forward our design culture and innovation. The way that we have marketed the business and pitched the company and the way we have portrayed our story and culture says that we are a quality manufacturer, with a strong brand. Being a UK manufacturer has a lot of weight in the global economy. Made in England has always gone down well in the Middle East and the credibility that we have built and the great customer service that we offer has held us in good stead. We produce very high-quality products and we can handle the exporting of that product out of the country seamlessly. Our products are design-led, and we have a great team. When we deliver the signs, the quality is there. We deliver great aftercare that goes down well with customers. The feedback we have been receiving is great and the company has been going from strength to strength. All of which makes us an attractive partner.