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European SMEs as International Champions

Anne-Mette Elsborg, Photo: All rights reserved

Thirty-seven examples of European small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that have achieved success on the international stage have just been unveiled in a publication as part of the European Commission’s drive to encourage entrepreneurship in Europe. 'The Secret of Success 2012-13' is a flagship publication for the European SME Week, which will be held from 15 to 21 October 2012. One of the aims of this event will be to promote entrepreneurship and inspire more European citizens to consider it as a viable career option.

The 37 international champions drawn from 37 countries were selected on the basis of their international success. The profiled winning entrepreneurs not only illustrate that European SMEs can successfully compete across a wide range of sectors overseas, they also highlight the fact that with hard work and the right strategy – regardless of sex, age and educational background – everyone has a chance to become an international champion.

'The inspirational entrepreneurs in this year’s “Secret of Success” brochure prove that you do not have to start big to have a big impact. They are all small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who have made a "big splash" in developing international business – they are truly our "international champions"!' writes Antonio Tajani, European Commission Vice-President in charge of Industry and Entrepreneurship, in his foreword to the publication.

Two pages are devoted to each success story, the first portraying the entrepreneur and the second telling the story in a succinct and informative way. The second page also has a brief interview with the entrepreneur and a question for the reader to prompt him/her into thinking about business ideas.

'Ever-advancing and more affordable technology mean that designers, managers, marketing experts and salespeople can collaborate in new ways to develop business potential and to serve markets and customers around the world, even if they are distant from each other and may not even share a common home base,' adds Tajani. 'These developments mean that internationalisation represents a great source of untapped potential for our small and medium-sized business. So far, only one-quarter of European SMEs export beyond the borders of their home country and even fewer – some 13 % – export outside Europe.'

A journey through some of the success stories presented in the brochure illustrates well the key role internationalisation can play in the success of a small business.

A 3D experience from Hungary

Holografika was set up by Tibor Balogh in Hungary in 1996. It holds several 3D-related patents and has developed 3D visualisation technology, including display devices, software applications and data compression solutions used in medicine, security and gaming. Asked about what distinguished his product from those of competitors, he said: 'Our high-end solution provides a real 3D experience that you don’t get from mainstream 3D display systems. Our Holovizio system displays provide about 60 to 80 times more information than other systems.'

The company is involved in R&D projects funded by Hungarian support programmes and the Sixth (FP6) and Seventh (FP7) EU Framework Programmes. Developing next-generation 3D holographic applications is the focus of the company. Holografika has established partnerships with major global companies and institutes. It is now active in ten countries, with 70 % of its turnover coming from international business. The company has 20 employees and its key markets are the EU, USA, India, South Korea and Japan.

As for doing business abroad, Balogh says 'it is very important to explain and demonstrate your products properly, virtually or in person, through conferences, exhibitions and local partners and presence'.

Engine reconditioning made in Denmark

Anne-Mette Elsborg came up with the idea of reconditioning and recycling used engine components to increase fuel efficiency in the 1970s. Building on her passion for marine engineering and professional experience on board ships, she decided to set up PJ Diesel Engineering in 1979. The company reconditions and manufactures fuel equipment and turbocharger parts for the shipping industry. It also provides emission and performance monitoring systems and technical advice.

Constant innovation and creativity has been a key part of PJ Diesel’s success. For example, the company recently adapted its electronic indication and emission monitoring systems to incorporate the very latest technology. Elsborg has also gained the recognition of her peers through awards: she received the 2009 Danish network of female company owners’ Inspiration Award and the 2011 Danish Career Prize by WOW Exenet, a women’s professional forum.

She sees entrepreneurs as being important to society because 'they are passionate about innovation'. 'Small companies develop niches in markets, especially during the start-up phase. At a later stage, larger companies can come in either to invest in a small company, or purchase a business concept,' she adds.

Global food brand distribution from the UK

Sun Mark could be described as a ‘rags to riches’ story that shows the benefits of hard graft. Rami Ranger began his business from a rented shed with capital of just £2 (€2.40) and a £40 (€48) typewriter. Seventeen years on, the key to its global success is the excellent quality of its services and products coupled with competitive prices.

Sun Mark runs a global distribution network for some of the UK’s most well-known food brands. It also manufactures its own range of quality, value-for-money products. The company has overcome rules and regulations governing customs clearance to carve out its niches in overseas markets.

Knowledge of local customs and tastes in individual markets has also played a part in the company’s growth in other countries. A sign of Sun Mark’s success is that it is the only British company to have gained three consecutive Queen’s Awards for Enterprise in International Trade.

Asked what advice he has for entrepreneurs, Ranger said: 'It is always wise not to put all your eggs in one basket; similarly, it is wise to do business in as many countries as possible in order to insulate oneself from the economic turmoil and political unrest of a particular country'. Sun Mark has strongly diversified its international business, and today distributes its foods across Europe and to Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Middle East.

A genetic testing services company from Portugal

Purificação Tavares decided to use her expertise as a professor of genetics to start up CGC Genetics, a genetic testing services business, in 1992. CGC struggled to expand internationally at first as it ran into difficulties establishing relationships with physicians and hospitals abroad and convincing them to use a Portuguese genetics laboratory. However, the company kept its focus on the quality of its services and its pricing and offered long-term technical and scientific support to clients. As a result, CGC now has customers in Asia, the Middle East and the US, including some of the most prestigious health institutions in the world.

Tavares’ advice to entrepreneurs seeking to expand overseas: 'It hasn't been easy, but it can be done. We have continuously invested our turnover into research and development. You must be prepared for hurdles and unexpected surprises. Plan well and don’t forget to make the most of the learning process throughout the journey.'

The brochure, which is published for the occasion of the European SME Week 2012, concludes with a section entitled ‘Develop your own business idea’, presenting a series of leading questions that a prospective entrepreneur has to consider when developing a business plan, a blank draft business plan scheme and information on what kind of support entrepreneurs can obtain from European institutions. For more information you can download the brochure.

The European SME Week, which was first held in 2009pdf(812 kB) Choose translations of the previous link , is part of the European Commission's strategy to support SMEs. This year it will take place from 15 to 21 October, with hundreds of events planned throughout Europe. In addition, a summit conference will be held in Brussels on 17 October with the theme 'Women's Entrepreneurship Makes Business Sense'.

SMEs and Internationalisation

By internationalisation, surveys usually mean any meaningful business relationship with a foreign partner such as exports, imports, foreign direct investments, international subcontracting or international technical co-operations.

Some of the results of a survey, carried out in 2009, of 9,480 SMEs in 33 European countries, provide useful insight on the topic:

  • International SMEs create more jobs and report higher turnover growthpdf(4 MB) Choose translations of the previous link : internationally active SMEs report growth of 7 % in employment versus only 1 % for SMEs without any international activities.
  • International SMEs are more innovative: 26 % of internationally active SMEs introduced products or services that were new for their sector in their country; for other SMEs the figure was only 8 %.

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