Navigating opportunities in cross-border business: What you need to know

Wealth planning

The benefits of tapping into a global marketplace may be plenty, but business owners need the right tools and resources to navigate the space.


Having a great product or service isn’t enough in today’s increasingly competitive global market. Whether you are considering spinning off your business overseas or thinking of internationalizing your company, here are some insights from two Canadian business owners on how to ensure operations run smoothly.

Understand the economic geography and demographic composition

Marco Yu is the managing director of Canada Sinosky, an import and export business based in North America. With offices in the United States, Canada, Italy and China, Canada Sinosky has grown to a wholesale business in designer goods, with a specialization in business-to-business contracts.

As a result of his many years of experience managing an international business, Yu maintains it’s important to understand the country in which you plan to set up a company. For Yu, that country is Canada.

“The majority of Canada’s population lives in a few big metropolitan centres close to the U.S. border,” he says. In addition, there are six different time zones across Canada, which, according to Yu, means the logistical cost of doing business in the country is higher than in most countries around the world.

Yu adds, “Canada is also known for its cultural and linguistic diversity.” He points out that this needs to be factored in when hiring staff. “Your team needs to be able to cater to the ethnic and cultural diversity of the target market. So they should be diverse and speak different languages.”

However, he also reminds business owners to keep the costs in check. “Canada may be a smaller market in a big country, but the costs could really mount, so keep things in perspective.”

Tap into the local expertise

In order for a business to succeed on local soil, business leaders should also seek to be culturally aware of the diverse population of the country. A lack of cultural knowledge may limit a firm’s ability to further develop its business.

William Cheng, president of Premier Candle Corporation – the largest privately owned candle manufacturer in Canada – notes the difficult decisions he had to make when he took over the reins from his father.

Cheng grew up in Hong Kong and studied abroad in Canada. His father founded Universal Candle in Hong Kong in 1979 and later, Premier Candle Corporation in Canada.

When Cheng took over Premier Candle, he decided to restructure the company to include more Canadian employees.

“I think the most important thing is to consider the business environment,” he says of the decision to hire local staff.

“We started hiring a lot more local North American talent, who understand the economics of the business as well as the labour environment,” Cheng recalls when he took over more than 13 years ago.

He says Premier Candle now operates as a Canadian company instead of an overseas firm that has a division in Canada.

A little networking goes a long way

It is important to stay current on new ideas and emerging trends no matter what type of business you run. Interacting with like-minded individuals and hearing the experiences of others within the industry may prove helpful when setting up shop in a foreign country.

Cheng recommends engaging with the business community and building a broad and deep network.

He also suggests informing them of the intent of setting up shop in the area so people know you are keen to invest in the country. Networking can create opportunities, from meeting potential collaborators to cultivating new clients.

Meanwhile, Yu’s experience doing business in Canada includes being involved in the country’s popular sports scene.

“I do find that going to sports games helps me tap into the local business networks,” he explains.

Yu says since arriving in Canada in 2001, his biggest hobby is ice hockey. “I became very active in my hockey networks and have developed close relationships with fellow hockey fans,” many of whom went on to support his fashion business.

Business can be fun when you share common interests and hobbies with clients and potential partners, “so open yourself up to different sports and cultures,” he advises.

Maximizing the potential of a cross-border business

In addition to the various legal and foreign exchange implications for their companies, business owners should consider the tax and estate-planning implications of holding personal assets – such as real estate and investments – in another country.

When it comes to managing assets, Cheng suggests tapping into the expertise of local private wealth groups. He says partnering with them can give you access to experts who are knowledgeable in estate planning.

“The partners at the bank as well as the legal advisors – they know what to do. I say start with your banker – they can provide you with support and guide you through the management of both personal and company assets.”

For business owners who are contemplating expanding overseas through mergers and acquisitions, Yu says conducting due diligence is vital.

“Engage a good lawyer and team to do the due diligence on the entity you are eyeing, as well as a thorough analysis of the targeted business partner.”

The character and ethics of the partner matter as much as the business model. Yu adds that one needs to be sure of both the business and human aspects of the targeted firm before going through with a deal.

But he notes that it’s not always easy. “They give you the advice; how you interpret and incorporate that is entirely up to you.”

An important piece of advice Cheng offers is to have an open mind but also remember to keep decision-making within a core set of values.

“Trial and error are key. Give it a go and make decisions from there. What works in one country may not work in another,” he notes.

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