Worldwise women Featured

10:08am EDT July 22, 2002
When Linda Henry began designing and making original teddy bears and dolls from her Canal Winchester home in 1987, doing business overseas was the last thing on her mind.

But as Henry's reputation as an artist grew, her business, Bearloom Bears, took off. Her gross sales and royalties increased from less than $10,000 at the start of the business to nearly $100,000 in 1997. Her most popular handmade bear, which measures 22 inches high and is made of mohair, retails in the United States for about $325.

In 1991, Henry began exhibiting her dolls and bears in Germany and The Netherlands. Soon, more than a third of her business was being done overseas.

Henry says having an Internet site has brought her many inquiries from overseas companies and increased her sales in the international market. One such contact in 1997 put Henry in touch with the Japanese home shopping network, Fuji TV. The network contracted with her to create 200 limited-edition teddy bears.

"I really didn't think they would sell all 200 of the bears because the price [for each] was the equivalent of $900 U.S., but they sold out quickly and still had customers calling to buy them," she says.

That order helped push her percentage of overseas business last year to 80 percent. Other opportunities are on the horizon in Japan as well, including illustrating a book and designing a children's clothing line.

"My experiences in the overseas market have all been positive," Henry says. "Part of this is due to the fact that I have an agent in Japan and a representative in Germany who handle all arrangements, including marketing, shipping and distribution in those countries."

Henry's agent in Japan is a husband and wife team that represents her not only on television but also in catalogs and shows. Because the wife is a native of Japan, she handles most of the arrangements there. In Germany, Henry is represented by her largest client, a man who not only retails her products but also represents her at shows.

For many Central Ohio women, doing business overseas is no longer a foreign concept. In fact, it's a great way to boost sales and market share.

Still, some female business owners offering products and services internationally encounter occasional problems that call for creative solutions.

Take, for example, Laura M. Thieme, president of Business Research International, a Columbus firm that provides customized international market research for companies doing business in Russia, Latin America and India.

"Being a woman business owner as opposed to being a woman from a Fortune 500 company sometimes makes a difference in how I am perceived," Thieme says. "I now tell people I work for Business Research International instead of saying that it is my own company."

Thieme, whose first overseas experience was a 1995 internship in St. Petersburg, Russia, will travel to Novgorod, Russia for several weeks this summer to strengthen business contacts in that region. While there, she may provide Internet research training in coordination with a government agency.

"I conduct a lot of research on the Internet," says Thieme, who uses a creative approach to avoid gender bias online. "I find that when I post a request for information using my full name, I get a slower response and less complete information than when I post the request using only my initials. As L. M. Thieme, I usually get quick, detailed responses addressed to Mr. Thieme."

Judith Sriram, vice president of Srico Inc., a Columbus fiber optic engineering company, opts for a more aggressive approach when gender becomes an issue with overseas buyers.

"We're just starting to get into the international marketplace," Sriram says of her 8-year-old company. "But because many of our products are government-regulated for export, it is sometimes difficult to sell overseas." That leaves Sriram spending much of her time drumming up business with international buyers by telephone and at industry trade shows.

"In our industry, I have noticed that men, in general, hesitate to visit a trade show booth staffed by a woman," Sriram notes. "Rather than let them just walk past, I make it a point to stand in front of my booth and invite buyers in to learn more about our business."

Sharon Kay Doherty, president of Vellus Products Inc., a Columbus-based manufacturer of grooming products for pets and horses, relies on her positive attitude and professionalism to counter challenges she happens upon as a woman doing business internationally. A full 50 percent of Doherty's business is transacted in more than 20 overseas markets, including England, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

On those few occasions when Doherty has sensed a potential customer's hesitation to deal directly with her, she simply shrugs it off.

"I have chosen to ignore it," she explains. "I always conduct myself as a professional, and I feel that once you have earned a customer's respect, your gender doesn't matter."

Of course, to earn that respect, Doherty notes that she has to know as much about the pet grooming business in each overseas market as her potential customer does.

"If you are professional, prepared and knowledgeable about the industry and about your product, you don't have problems," she adds. "I am just so enthusiastic about my product and my business, and that's my focus."

Her enthusiasm and professional attitude appear to be paying off. In May 1997, Gov. George Voinovich presented Doherty with an Ohio Excellence in Exporting Award. In addition, since the Vellus line of products was introduced in 1993, it has been widely used on an impressive list of pet show winners and horses from the royal stables in England and the United Arab Emirates.

When marketing products or services overseas, it is important to know who you're dealing with. Sometimes that's a challenge in itself. Doherty suggests checking potential representatives of your products through the U.S. embassy in that country for possible complaints or through the U.S. Department of Commerce, Columbus Export Assistance Center. Thieme agrees, but adds that for whatever challenges it presents, "doing business overseas and having the opportunity to work with other cultures is definitely a worthwhile experience.