Global expansion should never be a vanity project and requires mastery of a tricky formula, but the payback for clients, staff and corporation can be immense

Whoever said: “size doesn’t matter” was either trying to smarm their way into the affections of a potential lover or had just been rejected by a suitor with whom they wanted to form a global alliance of some sort.

I am afraid that it is a fact of life that if you work with any of the FTSE-100 companies as a partner, consultant, supplier or customer, size does matter.

The fact that you show five time zones on the clocks in your reception area does not necessarily mean that you have a fully functioning international presence delivering bottom-line return. It may just mean that you got them by the batch on a discount deal.

Recently a number of emails have been doing the rounds following the collapse of a relationship involving a QS firm and their Far East partner or “unique profit-sharing venture” as it was called at the time. I take no pleasure in watching the demise of yet another global alliance hit the dust.

I recall my own struggle many years ago introducing the concept of investing in international, in this case European, stand-alone operating offices at my 120-year-old practice. When I first ventured the idea, you could have heard a pin drop. The reaction was even more stunned when I outlined the required investment. Now after some two decades of international expansion the penny has dropped: global is good, if you get the formula right.

The global alliance model does not bring immediate benefit in bottom-line return and as such has never had much chance in the commercial environment in which we all work.

Gleeds has offices all over the world, from Sydney to Scotland and from Paris to Poland.

The key point is, the one thing they have in common is that they are wholly owned, operated and managed by Gleeds.

Many a joint-venture approach has been made to me in the past five years and every offer is viewed and considered on its merits – but all too often they founder on the “show me the money” issues.

The same questions always emerge. Who “owns” the customer and how can one ensure that the client receives the same level of service abroad that they would get from us in the UK? Can this be reproduced through a joint-venture vehicle operating in a new market? How are the fees to be split? Who is the key contact for the client? In the end it all becomes a commercial distraction rather than a business reality.

The key to our success has been summed up by the phrase ‘think global but act local’. Easy to say and something that looks pithy and purposeful on your corporate brochure. But damned hard to put into practice

So, then, how do you get global expansion to actually work? Well, as with all things, it is about finding a formula and applying it across the whole operation. Sometimes it seems an equal challenge getting Bristol to communicate with Birmingham as it is with our offices in Shanghai and Sydney. So try getting your Paris office to work in the same way as your Preston operation. If nothing else, the lunch hours are very different.

Do not underestimate the time it takes to ensure that the brand values and culture that have allowed you to succeed in the UK are transferred to a new and foreign operation. Also persuade your partners not to be too selfish. Often you will need to divert some of your brightest and best talent to help the local market manager develop their business.

Forget about the warm thrill of having business cards in seven languages. What counts with our partners is that global expansion is never a vanity operation, it is about service delivery and enhanced commercial opportunity. These are non-negotiable facts of life.

The real key to our success, though, has been summed up by the phrase “think global but act local”. Easy to say and something that looks pithy and purposeful on your corporate brochure. But dammed hard to put into practice.

Adopting the “global” and “local” philosophy, we have found that one value is as integral to the success of the business as the other.

The UK is the engine room providing the impetus, support and funding by which we can expand overseas. However, we have seen bottom-line return and enhanced value for our client base as we have not only exported but also imported ideas and methodologies from around the world.

I write this having just returned from reviewing our Atlanta office’s plans for dealing with the workload coming from Hurricane Katrina. Importantly, that follows trips to Cambridge, Bristol and Birmingham. Later this week I am scheduled to visit the Far East. Tiring? Yes. Rewarding? Absolutely.

The commitment for global expansion begins at the top of an organisation but when it works and cascades throughout, it is truly satisfying. Our market for future talent is extremely competitive and recently when I visited our office in Bristol and talked to the fresh intake, the opportunity to work abroad featured very high on their wishlist.

The payback for true global expansion is seen in many ways and for the digital generation, well used to access to any part of the world via the internet, size is important.