Fredericton’s CARIS captured the 2011 Exporter of the Year Award thanks to their world-class geospatial software solutions. The company was born in 1979 when Dr. Salem Masry, a professor at the University of New Brunswick (UNB), was asked to advise on the creation of digital mapping software.

Over 36 years later the company now designs and builds solutions for customers operating across the marine, land, and aviation industries. While still headquartered in New Brunswick, CARIS now operates offices in the United States, Australia, the UK, and The Netherlands, while offering services to more than 90 countries.

ONB spoke with Andy Hoggarth, Marketing & Sales Manager, to discuss the company’s export experience.

ONB: What were there the most notable challenges that CARIS faced along the path towards export success, and how were they overcome?

Hoggarth: Twenty years ago, the company realized that in order to do business in a lot of countries, specifically countries in the east and in the southern hemisphere, we needed a network of partners on the ground. One of the things we knew would get in the way was language. Perhaps more importantly, however, we needed people on the ground who knew how to do business in those countries.

I’ve somewhat flipped your question on its head a bit because what I mean is we overcame that problem before it had time to become a problem. It would have stood in the way of export success had we not established that broad network of strategic partners in countries where we looked to do business.

Are there any unique attributes of New Brunswick that provided you with export advantages?

I think there are benefits in being Canadian, first and foremost. CARIS is a company that specializes in geomatics and mapping, and this is seen globally as a Canadian strength. So being Canadian, and operating in that realm, gave us a certain degree of kudos. To bring it down to a provincial level, New Brunswick itself has got a bit of a history in that area from a natural resources perspective, and through the affiliation with departments at UNB. The connections between CARIS and academia have been something that’s helped us conduct business.

As an example, two years ago I was in Indonesia and was asked to visit a university in Bandung, which is about three hours out of Jakarta. This technical university had a department that was actually modeled on UNB. One of the lecturer’s had actually done his Master’s at UNB, and then gone back and replicated their model, that department’s syllabus, etc. based on his time in New Brunswick. I thought that was pretty neat. That connection to the University is quite powerful in terms of doing business globally.

Absolutely, that’s terrific to hear.

There’s one more thing I think is helpful, and this may sound weird. Coming from New Brunswick, one of the gifts I take for clients more than anything else is maple syrup; people really like it. I ship as much maple syrup to Brazil as I do software. It’s amazing how that regional/local specialty helps. But more seriously, it’s that connection to academia coupled with a bit of that regional flavour that really does the job.

That is a quintessentially Canadian product.

It really is.

You’ve actually somewhat answered our question about academic partnerships already. Care to expand on that?

Yes, if I could. We have about 90 universities now around the world affiliated with us, and we have an academic program where we deploy our software into these academic institutions for a very low price. This is for educational purposes, but we get some great benefits from it. We get an emerging workforce that’s trained in our software, which means they could work for us or our clients. Also, having those affiliations with academia means we get access to new algorithms, techniques, and technology.

Can you tell us a bit more about the importance of better understanding the culture of target markets?

I certainly think it’s important to be culturally aware, but I don’t put as much emphasis on that as others might, to be honest. People will forgive me a bit for my cultural naïveté if they really want our software. But we do try to be culturally aware as an international team that travels. If I’m in the Middle East, in a place that’s a dry country like Saudi Arabia, clearly you’ve got to respect that. There are certainly cultural considerations, and people like to do business in slightly different ways. But honestly, I think our product is still the most important factor. We go to countries all over the world that want our software, and we won’t let cultural differences overpower the situation, we’re going there because they want the product.

Let’s get your best advice for any other regional businesses looking to start or grow their export activities.

I really think that, depending on the country, it’s having those local, on-the-ground connections and intelligence. We’d struggle to perform in a country like China without having a strong partner network there. It depends on the product, and the type of business you’re in, but I don’t think there’s anything better than having strategic partners on the ground. They should be people that have proven their abilities. We don’t give a partnership out easily. If they’ve brought business to us and that’s worked out quite successfully, and then a second piece of business comes our way, then by the time a third piece comes along we’ll be thinking seriously about strategic partnerships. We don’t just go and hook on with the first person that comes along. We build those networks through traveling ourselves, and through finding word-of-mouth recommendations. You have to do the legwork.

What’s next for CARIS?

We see the industry we target becoming increasingly automated. You hear about drones all the time now. Well, we work in the oceans and, there are as many drones under the sea as there are flying about. We’re really embracing this automation, and that brings efficiency and cost savings and allows our experts to focus on important things rather than on more mundane, repetitious tasks. It really frees people up to work on the hard stuff