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Think Global, Act Local

Sept. 1, 2007
When speaking with Dan Ellens, its tough to separate his business philosophy from his life philosophy. There probably is little difference between the

When speaking with Dan Ellens, it’s tough to separate his business philosophy from his life philosophy. There probably is little difference between the two. Ellens is vice president and managing director, Jervis B. Webb Co., Farmington Hills, Mich. And, he knows global material handling. About 10 years ago, Ellens was tapped by his company to head up its initial efforts of establishing a foothold in Bangalore, India. He went there when his company had about a dozen people in the land, and his mission was to grow it to 150 people. He helped establish Webb India as a leader in the manufacturing of material handling equipment.

It wasn’t all fun, travel and adventure, says Ellens. “India is heaven and hell,” a line he uses and attributes to another colleague. “From the beginning, we were unbending in our commitment to global specifications for products, however, we had a customer base [in India] that essentially didn’t care about our quality standards.”

Since his return from India, Ellens has collected his many experiences into a fast-selling book, A Time for India, by Dan Ellens and Lakshmi Srinivas, first published in 2006. Now in its second printing, the book can serve as a business person’s introduction to life in another culture, regardless of which culture.

A Global Life
Ellens’ saga is a bit different from other business execs who have accepted international assignments. Being the adventuresome sort, he packed up his wife and four children--the youngest was about to start kindergarten and the oldest was entering the seventh grade--and off they went. The kids went to the International School. Whenever Ellens had time off, the family traveled throughout the country. “When we left America,” he recalls, “the kids did not want to go. And, when it was time to return, they didn’t want to leave India.”

The book, based on 180 personal letters he wrote while in India, “provides a personal look at what life was like for a family of ex patriots,” says Ellens. “For people going to India, it’s the kinds of things everyone was experiencing then and now.” It’s a mixture of personal experiences, insights and a guide to understanding a culture unfamiliar to many.

At the top of his list of recommendations for companies wishing to do business in a foreign land is to beware of the infrastructure--or lack thereof. “You can’t take the rules of the game as you know it into a new game that is essentially chaos,” he says with a laugh.

What’s required, in this country and the country you’re establishing business in, is a well-developed pool of suppliers. “You must have a dependable supply stream,” says Ellens. “A reliable supply chain is incredibly important to do what you have to do in India or anywhere. In India, the supply stream was non-existent.”

That’s kind of the bad news, he says. The other, not always bad news, is that all of your customers within the country know there’s a limited supply stream, thus there’s some forgiveness--a tolerance, he calls it.

A lack of tolerance is one of those things that can unravel a company bent on doing everything just-intime or in the leanest fashion possible. You can’t always have it your way. “Companies have to understand the cultural differences to survive in business,” says Ellens. “These countries [including China] are difficult to set up operations in. We realized both India and China were at the beginning, as well as the middle, of their industrial growth plans. India is on a very systematic progression to leapfrog from 1910 to 2010 in a 10-year period.”

Two words that directed Ellens’ life in India, and advice he gives to others regarding going global, are ”patience” and ”persistence.” “We injected technological and business resources into the country and its infrastructure for 10 years before we exported anything,” he says. “We exchanged people and training programs and now use our Indian technical and sales resources, and the manufacturing resources, wherever they’re needed and available.”

He admits that it’s tough to let go of some aspects of control when it’s ingrained in our culture to succeed. Coordination, or getting material through when it’s in the hands of a customs agent, traffic jams and power outages are just some things you can’t control, so let it go.

Becoming the Best
As with any endeavor, starting from scratch was not only Ellens’ greatest challenge, it was also his best opportunity to make a difference. “We wanted to be the premium [material handling equipment] supplier in India,” he says. “So, every morning I’d look in the mirror and ask, ‘What’s going to happen to me today? And, what do I do to overcome that?’”

The solution, he says, was to break down his overwhelming list of things to do into daily tasks. “I

“Too many people focus on the process and forget what they’re trying to attain is the end product.” – Dan Ellens

would try one thing, and if it didn’t work, I immediately tried something different. I just kept at it and wouldn’t let not accomplishing some task get in the way of my overall goal.”

He says anyone working in a foreign country is under pressure to localize its operations. “If you can stay ahead of your competition by using local material and local talent, you’re better off,” Ellens advises.

Responding to the question of pushback from people who don’t understand the intricacies of global trade, Ellens says Jervis B. Webb Co. has been an international company since the mid-1950s. Its engineers and manufacturing people cross borders all the time, and international aspects of its business are part of the daily routine.

“Globalization is not just about things being produced there and brought here,” says Ellens, glancing at the many international pictures adorning his office walls. “Everyone in our shops sees products going from here to China, India or South America. Some places are just entering their industrial revolutions; others are fully industrialized.”

One senses the excitement of working in developing nations Ellens feels when he says, “With a new industry, you can do something and it makes a big change. In a mature industry, you have to do a lot of fine tuning to bring something from 95% efficient to 98% efficient.”

Heaven and Hell
Some people look at foreign assignments as prison terms, says Ellens. For him, it was fun. “It [working in a developing nation] has a bit of that Wild West element to it. Working in a foreign land requires resourcefulness and personal perseverance just to survive and accomplish anything.”

There’s little doubt that globalization and making things happen in a culture different from what you’re used to is a major challenge. It’s also a major opportunity, both personally and for furthering one’s business career. Ellens says, putting it into a baseball -- maybe cricket--metaphor, “Sometimes, you just have to step up to the plate and swing the bat.

“You have to focus on the positives,” he says. “If you focus on the negative aspects, you’re going to miss the experience. You have to have the right attitude. If you recognize that you’re going to get something good out of it, nothing but good will come out of it.”

For the manager who takes the foreign assignment, as well as the company that decides to go global, it’s rewarding. “People often disqualify themselves because they think it’s not going to be comfortable or something,” he says. “What you accomplish in life is up to you, and it can be tremendous. There are places in the world you cannot get to unless you walk. There are experiences you cannot have unless you do them. There’s no way to get that experience unless you do it.”

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