Moog Inc. chief executive Robert T. Brady has some advice for businesses thinking about going international:
The American way isn't always the best way to go.
"It's a mistake for Americans to start up in other countries, thinking 'We're Americans and we know everything,' " Brady said Thursday as he spoke to members of the World Trade Center Buffalo Niagara business group.
Instead, it's often best to be flexible. Executives need to spend time getting to know their international customers and the local customs. And, when it makes sense, be willing to go local.
It's a philosophy that has helped Brady develop new skills as an artist, thanks to a Chinese custom of marking the grand opening of a new business by painting the eyes of a papier-mache dragon. Brady's done it three times, at each of the facilities the East Aurora-based aerospace company recently has opened in China.
"You feel a little foolish because it's like something you'd do in middle school, but that's what they expect and that's what we do," Brady said.
But bowing to local customs is one of the lessons that Moog executives have learned by doing business overseas for more than four decades. Roughly 40 percent of Moog's 9,400 employees work outside the United States. While most of Moog's business units get between a quarter and a fifth of their sales internationally, the company's industrial products segment generates more than three-quarters of its revenues from outside the United States.
Yet Brady also cautioned that going international takes commitment and hard work, and he warned that it can take a personal toll on workers who are transfered overseas.
"It's not always an easy thing," Brady said, recalling that in the early days of Moog's overseas ventures in the 1960s and early 1970s, it seemed as if half of the couples who went to work at the company's German business came back home divorced because the spouses often felt isolated.
"It's an element of the business that has some hazards," Brady said.
Now, Moog urges its workers to make sure their spouse and family members are part of the process to decide whether to take an overseas transfer. "A negative response will not be career limiting," Brady said. "In the early days, that was not the case."
Still, Moog believes it is important for its managers, engineers and many other employees to get a personal taste of the international markets. It often encourages those employees to spend a three-year tour overseas, while engineers and salesmen often relocate for a year to learn a particular technology.
"Everyone has to travel. The leadership of the company has to go to the places where the business is done," Brady said.
"It can't be done in a weekend," Brady said. "We have a travel bill that will choke a horse."
But it's also worth it, especially now that bigger companies typically do business on a global scale.
"It's interesting. It's rewarding. It's informative," Brady said. "It's also a lot of work."