Creating markets for his processing and exporting company wasn’t easy
for Gary Schweitzer when he started Schweitzer Enterprises 14 years ago
in Eston, Sask.
He remembers one day in particular when he phoned 100 companies trying
to drum up markets for his spices and special crops.
“Not one bit of business came out of that.”
While that example shows perseverance to be paramount when stepping
into the world of exports, what else is needed to remain a player in
There are no hard and fast rules, but some common themes emerge from
the experiences of three prairie companies that export agricultural
Schweitzer listed price, service and quality as three things important
to attracting customers and keeping them. That can be important in any
business, but it’s especially important in the high stakes game of
“Good news spreads fast,” Schweitzer said. “Bad news spreads even
Real Tetrault, whose Emerson Milling Inc. of Emerson, Man., supplies
oat groats for the North American bird food market, emphasized the need
for a reliable track record of consistent quality and timely delivery.
That means knowing the customers and their expectations. It means
ensuring there is adequate product to export, taking into account the
risk of crop failure due to things like drought, crop disease and
insects. It also means the paperwork must be in order so there are no
glitches when a shipment leaves Canada for markets as far away as Asia
and the Middle East.
It can be a juggling act between keeping farmers satisfied and meeting
the needs of buyers, especially when their demands are written into
“We try to put the farmer first, but you cannot jeopardize your buyer
at the other end, either,” said Vickie Dutton, whose Saskatchewan
business, Western Grain Cleaning and Processing, processes and exports
Each of the three companies has gradually assembled a range of
expertise to help manage things like marketing, the logistics of moving
a crop from farmers’ fields to foreign buyers, and ensuring payment
once shipments are delivered.
Tetrault used to wear many hats, but now he has a collection of
specialists, and he values their insights.
“I don’t look at myself as the decision maker. We do this as a group.
You have to give people a certain amount of discretion in their jobs.”
The Duttons recently hired their daughter, Heidi, to help with
marketing. Heidi, a university graduate in agricultural economics,
works as a trader in Western Grain’s Saskatoon office.
“It’s quite often cheaper to hire more people than to try to do
everything yourself,” Dutton said, citing the headaches avoided and
business gained by employing specialists.
And what about the risk of non-payment? What do exporters do to hedge
against that risk?
There are a variety of tools available, including things like export
insurance and letters of credit.
Export Development Canada is among the agencies providing protection
for export receivables. EDC insurance can cover up to 90 percent of
losses incurred when a foreign buyer doesn’t pay.
A letter of credit typically is an arrangement where payment is held in
an agreed-upon bank account and released to the exporter once the
shipment is received and meets the importer’s expectations. The
documents have to be painstakingly precise, since even a misspelled
name can become a premise for the buyer to renege on a deal.
Payment in advance is another option, if the importer will agree.
Perhaps just as important is thorough detective work on the part of the
Tetrault emphasized due diligence, which means determining a customer’s
reliability for making payments before sending shipments. He considers
the market for oat groats an honourable one.
The Canadian Trade Commission has offices around the globe and can
provide information on marketing organizations and companies importing
The commission can also offer advice on doing business in a particular
country, including an indication of potential barriers, as well as the
regulations and certifications needed to tap that market.
Exporters are reluctant to discuss in detail which tools they use to
guard against the risk of non-payment. Each of the tools has its
strengths and limitations and no one should assume they are all
With so many pieces to fit together, it’s not surprising that Dutton
draws parallels between exporting and assembling a jigsaw puzzle.
“It’s like having a puzzle on your desk every day.”