Finding the Best International Distributors

I am frequently asked where and how to find great international distributors.

First question: In which countries do you want to focus? Virtually no one has the global reach and time and money resources to launch in all markets at once.

Consider segmenting your prospective international markets into three segments: small, medium and large.

You will need to focus on those markets with the biggest opportunities first. Once you get them up and running, go for the ‘mid sized’ opportunities. Later you can fill in the gaps, going for the smaller opportunities. As smaller opportunities arise, you can always choose to trade opportunistically without devoting resources devoted to larger opportunities.

In one automotive aftermarket project I worked on, we focused only on cars, not on all vehicles because trucks and buses were a far smaller opportunity for this particular product. We identified that markets with 5 million cars or more presented the most attractive opportunities for the first phase of our expansion.

So who is the right kind of country distributor for your products? To get an idea, first examine the top 20 percent of customers in the United States (or your most successful international markets) that bring you 80 percent of your sales. Profile them:

  • How do they sell?
  • Who do they sell?
  • How do they feel about your product or brand?
  • Do they share any special education or background? For example: are they mechanical engineers, mechanics, body technicians by training?
  • What 3 or 4 personality traits do they share in common?

Now, you need a plan or dream of exactly what you are trying to build internationally. Lay out very specifically the tools/resources you have or will need to build the brand: catalogs, product line, advertising, Web strategy, sales promotions, U.S. brand share/data etc. Find a metric you can use (i.e.: consumer spending, population, number of cars, GDP growth) to benchmark your opportunity. Build a PowerPoint presentation to entice/excite potential international distributors.

Now it’s time to find excellent international distributors. I have found my very best international distributors in the following ways:

Trade Shows: Actively working in your brand’s booth at Industry trade shows in the United States, France and Germany. Build the best booth you can afford. Effort shows and impresses. Position your brand as the world leader and showcase your products like jewels. Also post a professionally prepared sign listing the countries you are looking for distribution in.

Other companies: Find out the other companies from the United States doing international well in your industry. Get to know their ‘road warriors’ who travel international markets. Become their friends (usually they are great guys). I have found great partners in Latin America and Russia through my friends who traveled those areas seeing non-competitive products. Be sure to return the favor when they ask for help. Industry associations can be great ways to meet international distributors. Many U.S. associations have relationships with their European, Latin American, Middle Eastern and Asian counterparts. Some organize overseas visits often in conjunction with U.S. government agencies. As the domestic economy (and often opportunity) declines, these associations are focusing more and more of their expertise and resources on international markets.

The U.S. Government Commercial Service can be a great resource. Each embassy has commercial service agents, some specialized in certain industries, who are there to help you get international business! I have used their ‘Gold Key’ service where they will organize one or two days of visits to importers/distributors who specialize in your industry, usually after a briefing at the embassy.

Follow up on the e-mail and faxed inquiries from international distributors who have either visited your booth at an industry show or checked out your Web site are a great source of potential distributors. You should send them a questionnaire so you can find out more about:

  • The nature of their business
  • Years in business
  • Number of sales people
  • Numbers and types of outlet serviced
  • What other international lines they import and sell and in what volume

Web sites – Check out the Web sites of leading companies who sell quality products in your industry. Who represents and sells their line in international markets? These representatives or distributors could be great prospects for your product line.

From all these sources you should be able to put together effective prospecting trips where you can visit four to 10 prospects in each country that you wish to get focused on.. Speed is of the essence. Once you have those prospects in your big opportunity markets, buy a plane ticket and go to see them in their market.

Plan on:

  • Introducing your company and the international opportunity for your product. "Dollarize' the opportunity if possible and “show them the money.”
  • Demonstrate how your products work (if possible with end users present so the distributor can see their positive reaction and eagerness to purchase your product)
  • Finding out as much as possible about their company, culture, passions, likes and dislikes

Have them take you to the market and see how well they understand the outlets, how successful they are and how well they are liked and respected. Do they see opportunities with the same enthusiasm that you do?

Spend some “away from business” time perhaps eating with your prospects to determine if they are the type of people you are excited to enter into a long term relationship with.

Be tenacious, enthusiastic, invest the time and money to visit the markets, and have an exciting marketing plan (that you will really deliver) and you will do very well. We have some helpful market penetration calculators on the front page of our Web site.

Editor’s Note: Tom Muldowney is the managing director of International Market Access Ltd. He formed IMA in Hong Kong in 2000 to help take American brands global. A longtime OAC member, Tom has sold more than $500 million of U.S.-made products to international markets. He has been based in Asia for 16 years working with global brands/organizations such as Loctite, Henkel, Permatex, Teroson, 3M and Meguiar's. He has set up subsidiaries in Korea and representative offices in China. Tom can be reached at: IMA's new Web site: He also has a blog updated several times a week: