Quill Co.’s foreign trade experience lights the way

The Quill Co. Inc. of Cranston has been around for some 34 years, making and selling its trademark slant-top writing instruments for companies that literally want their logos at people’s fingertips. And it has established exporting ties in Canada, Mexico and Europe on its own.

So why then would Quill, which was bought by T&T Manufacturing in 1972, participate in a Pacific Rim trade mission run by the R.I. Economic Development Corporation?

“Quill is quite an experienced exporter; one way that experienced exporters participate is if it’s a new market [for them],” explained Maureen Mezei, the EDC’s international trade director. “They use the opportunity of the trade mission, and the presence of the governor, and the prestige of the mission to set up appointments.”

Gov. Lincoln Almond joined representatives from Quill and 10 other Rhode Island companies on the whirlwind October 1997 tour of Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea. The trip was partially funded by BankBoston and other grant money. Participants paid their own travel expenses, plus a participation fee.

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“We were pioneering in overseas markets,” said Michael Woody, Quill’s vice president of sales and marketing. “If you don’t have contacts, it can be really difficult, because you don’t know where to start.

“It saved us a significant amount of time and investment,” he said.

When asked to estimate roughly how much time and money the company saved working with EDC, Woody said it would be hard to quantify.

“It’s difficult to estimate if you even look at Korea, I didn’t know anyone there, literally knew no one,” Woody said. “In Malaysia, my distributor wasn’t able to get in to see people sometimes it’s difficult to get appointments with potential buyers because they don’t even want to see you.”

But Woody said he discovered proper use of EDC’s contacts at the U.S. Foreign Commercial Service and traveling with a government official, such as Almond, can eliminate trade barriers. According to an EDC report on its trade missions, Quill reported making seven serious business contacts in Malaysia alone.

“We gave them the profile of who we were looking to hook up with,” Woody said. “In some countries I wanted to hook up with potential buyers in other countries I wanted to speak with potential distributors.”

“We work with the industry specialists in the Commercial Service, who’ve been in the market for many years,” Mezei explained.

Experienced exporters are likely to have an advantage on a trade mission, she added.

“They realize in order to be successful you need to visit the market, you need to make the commitment in terms of personnel and resources,” Mezei said. “Also they know that it’s not going to happen necessarily tomorrow; the sales cycles in some countries are longer.”

Woody, who was Quill’s lone representative on the trip, said experience helped him maintain focus along the way, since the economic crisis that’s plagued some Asian markets for more than a year now began during the trade mission.

“In Korea they had their economic problems right after our visit the price of our product increased overnight there,” he said, adding that has slowed plans for new business there. But Quill executives are looking toward the future, instead of bemoaning the present situation.

“As the dollar weakens against those currencies and their currency recovers, we’re already going to have a running start,” Woody explained.

“I was worried that the short-term would (be impacted), but not the long-term,” he said. “They have to have confidence in your company. That long-term bond or relationship will survive in spite of economic downturns.

“If you’re willing to show that you’re interested in business in a country, even when the economic situation is not good, then when the situation turns around you’ll be better off,” Woody said.

Quill would likely participate in future EDC run trade missions, after it gets its Pacific Rim business firmly established and is ready to enter new markets, according to Woody. “I think most businesses today should try to think globally. Whether they should act globally, that is something EDC can help them with.”

One final, but not-so-obvious, benefit of participating in a trade mission: camaraderie.

At a recent Bryant College exporting forum, Woody told attendees he found it helpful to sit down after a full day of meetings and share war stories with fellow trade mission participants. “These trips can be so grueling; it’s so great at the end of the day to have some camaraderie with other people who are going through the same thing,” Mezei said.

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