• International
    • Export

A journey to export success

  • Article

Careful analysis of target markets and appointing a dedicated team are vital to the international success of Green Sheep Group.

From early beginnings designing some of the first organic baby mattresses to winning a 2018 Queen’s Award for Enterprise, Green Sheep’s international expansion has shown what hard and thoughtful effort can achieve.

The company was founded by two Aston University graduates who spotted a gap in the market for more natural baby bedding. It now sells in at least 10 countries, including the UAE, Germany, France and the Netherlands. Chief executive Roger Allen admits he is now willing to believe that the company’s success overseas is “better than a flash in the pan”.

We went from a couple of hundred thousand pounds to more than half a million pounds of export business

Roger Allen | Chief Executive, Green Sheep Group

He says: “We have a growing global footprint. At the start, our sales overseas were fairly reactive. People would call us from all sorts of countries and ask if they could stock our product. It was all done by responding to inquiries. But there came a point where I felt we needed a strong export business as a hedge to what is going on in the UK at the moment.

“I got behind our export strategy two years ago, and promoted an export manager from our sales force. Thanks to him, we went from a couple of hundred thousand pounds to more than half a million pounds of export business. And we are proactive. We go out and present things to companies, rather than seeing whether the phone rings.”

Green Sheep’s products are stocked in most of the UK’s best-known baby and child retailers, including John Lewis, and Mamas and Papas. The business also has a direct-to-consumer website selling into the UK. Top products include a bedside crib with a removable side, which is designed to keep new babies close to their parents but allows them to sleep safely, and a cot for older babies that expands into a cot bed and then a bed for children up to the age of 10.

These products are sold under one of the company’s brands, Snuz, while organic bedding, towels and mattresses are sold under the Little Green Sheep brand.

Tips for a good trading relationship

1 Do your research first

“It’s been really important to understand the dynamics in the countries we want to sell into – what parenting is like, and what it is like to be a mum or dad. The buyer wants to know that we understand them.”

2 Become a real standards expert

“Safety is so important. Being able to prove we know the standards in a country, and our products are rigorously designed to meet them, is key. We’re planning to expand into the US. The safety standards for cots are quite different. It will cost us £10,000 to redesign SnuzPod, but we’ll take that expense before we start looking for partners there.”

3 Keep the channels open

“We make sure that almost all our customers have some face time with us every year, and we often call, visit and email. This level of communication is really important when it comes to maintaining a good trading relationship.”

International partners

When looking to expand into new territories, Mr Allen said the business carefully researched the market in the countries he was considering, including the parenting culture, as well as the shipping, transport and insurance issues. Then his export manager visited the most appropriate retailers in the regions to discuss the products.

The support of HSBC, and particularly relationship manager Steve George and area director Mark Lupton, has made a huge difference to the company’s expansion

Roger Allen | Chief Executive, Green Sheep Group

“We’ve established international relationships with our clients directly, and that’s been possible because the brand is so strong,” he says, adding that as the company grows further it is likely to need international partners. “Inevitably we will have to consider that approach as the company grows,” he says.

Mr Allen adds that the support of HSBC, and particularly relationship manager Steve George and area director Mark Lupton, has made a huge difference to the company’s expansion. “You know that banks can be challenging sometimes, but these guys have been extremely supportive. They’ve been part of our success.” HSBC has provided a variety of financing to the group, including credit lines, invoice financing and import loans. The bank has also introduced Green Sheep Group to its own partners to provide other services, including insurance of its debtor book by Euler Hermes. “Steve George introduced us to a great company and asked them to look after us. That's just one example of the help HSBC has given us,” says Mr Allen.

Growth ‘like a whirlwind’

Since the company won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the Innovation category last year, Mr Allen says that growth in the business has been “like a whirlwind. In July, our turnover passed the £8m-a-year mark, and that was triggered by the award. We had a really nice presentation for the ceremony, and a lot of HSBC people came along. There was quite a lot of press, and from that point there has been a step change.

“Our next step is to look at America, and we will do our research first,” he says. The company recently appointed David Wood, a former Tesco director and chief executive of K-Mart, as chairman, and they have been drawing up a strategy. Mr Allen says: “We’ve got experience of a lot of this road already. Though we are not in every country, we are in enough territories to know what we are doing from a shipping, transport, risk, finance and relationship point of view. Export is an area we have appetite to grow in – and HSBC has been such a help on our journey.”

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