Oregon companies searching for a European connection

If you think all computer printers churning out Braille documents only can make simple rows of letters, pages run through ViewPlus Technologies’ machines may surprise you.


Engineers assemble a braille embosser
Senior Engineer Christian Herden and Assembler Patrick Bailey assembling an embosser
Senior engineer Christian Herden (right) and assembler Patrick Baily build braille printers Wednesday at ViewPlus Technologies in Corvallis. Braille printers made by ViewPlus Technologies are being sold in European markets, as well as in the United States.

Bar charts, diagrams of the eye’s anatomy and maps of the floor plan of a conference in Los Angeles all are here, made of patches of bumps. For a sighted person, the Corvallis company’s printed pages seem strikingly visual, like low-relief friezes. For a blind person, the printers create textures to provide detailed representations of computer graphics. Different dot heights, for example, mimic different colors in a chart.

But this 30-person company that works with giants such as Hewlett-Packard faces a major challenge: Most people have little use for expensive Braille machines. Selling to a small niche has spurred the firm to do as many other Oregon companies and expand to Europe, said Jeff Gardner, the company’s vice president of marketing. Last year, about 80 percent, or $700,000, of the firm’s overseas sales were made to European countries.

Although Asia remains the main overseas destination for Oregon products, some people say that exports to Europe are increasing. The weak dollar has spiked many small companies’ hopes of tapping Europe’s large consumer market. “We’re taking advantage of the dollar being in the situation it’s in,” Gardner said. “People are getting our products for a lot less.”

Each year, about $2 billion of the more than $10 billion in products that Oregon exports to other countries goes to Europe, said Craig Burk of the Oregon Economic & Community Development Department. The number has remained more-or-less steady for about four years, he said, and is an estimate of the state’s exports, because it counts all products shipped out of state.
Exporting to Europe isn’t a smart move for every company, said Burk, who advises companies about how to approach possible expansion on that continent. “We basically talk them through the dos and don’ts,” Burk said. “We look at the feasibility of the market. We tell them: ‘You can have five different competitors in Europe. Do you have a unique product that can compete effectively? Because you have to pay for shipping it from here. “There’s a lot of that reality check.”

There are other problems, too, including finding reliable distributors for each country. Distributors often must be able to provide translation services or other technical support.
Other problems include paying for duties, certifying electronics and toys and choosing the right colors and tone for users guides of products in each locale. Germans, for example prefer more technical language than Americans. But, Burk said, more Oregon firms are overcoming the hurdles that can make success in Europe challenging.

The Business of Braille

In Corvallis, ViewPlus Technologies began selling to Europe in 1999, as soon as it had a product. It works with TallyGenicom, building specialized braille hardware on top of that company’s printers. Today, more than half of ViewPlus’ sales are overseas. About 80 percent of sales, or $750,000 last year, are to Europe, compared to about 15 percent to Asia. Sales to Europe have been doubling on a yearly basis.

To solve language issues, the firm’s engineers work with Oregon State University experts. Distributors also help localize its software, “so if you sell something to Germany, it doesn’t speak English on their computer,” Gardner said.

One concern for the company is transporting people, products and equipment. To attend a trade show in England, they may have to pay a value-added tax of about 17 percent for shipping display products. “If I insure my package for a couple thousand dollars, I end up paying a nice bit for things I’m not even selling,” Gardner said.

Fortunately, the company does not travel the road to Europe alone. Partnerships with large companies such as TallyGenicom have helped them learn about regulation, including securing European conformity approval. And duties for products often are managed by distributors.
“You just have to go to trade shows and get them excited, and they help you with the rest,” Gardner said. Other costs for ViewPlus include its manufacturing representative in Europe, who works with distributors. And about ten times per year, it pays for sending Oregon employees to Europe.

Future Growth

Burk, the European trade expert for the state’s Economic & Community Development Department, increasingly hears anecdotal evidence of smaller companies shipping to more European countries.
“All of the companies I’ve talked to said the weak dollar makes a difference,” he said. “But I probably heard more of the downside, when the dollar was high.”

Oregon firms must realize that Europe has different ways of doing business.
American firms often need technical support from distributors, such as someone to translate software or user documents. “A lot of times, (that) takes a lot longer than an Oregon company would like,” or is used to, Burk said.

There are other issues as well: Europeans generally don’t like bright colors in user guides and other materials. Small touches, such as using British addresses instead of U.S. addresses in those materials, can be important. Using a competitor’s name in an advertisement can be prohibited. One faux-pas in business discussions is immediately talking about money issues, such as discounts or payments.

But if small companies can overcome these obstacles, now could be a good time to expand to Europe. When the dollar was high, “larger companies like Nike do foreign sourcing, so they can save that way,” Burk said. “But for companies that had a boxed-up product that they were sending to Europe, the high dollar did make a difference when competing with European suppliers.”

Web Links

ViewPlus Pro Embosser Ink Attachment
This article was written by Toby Manthey and published in the January 30th 2005 Statesman Journal. The author can be contacted at (503) 399-6737.

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