Ahh, the life of a salesman: traveling to fabulous places and seeing the sites, all for a couple hour-long meetings with customers in hopes of a sale. Maybe do a couple of wine and dines at fancy restaurants on the company dime. Stay at those fancy hotels with lavish room service.
Those who do this for a living know what I just wrote is total baloney. First, equipment dealers and contractors often locate in industrial areas with fewer amenities. Second, you really do not have a lot of time on your own. The meals, usually arranged by others, typically are more functional than fun. Travel outside the United States just adds to the costs, uncertainty and angst — especially if you make the trip to investigate an issue with a product you provided.
I only did a few sales trips outside of North America. This tale involves one of those trips, to China. It’s a long story; I will break it up into parts. This is part one: The Hook.
In the latter half of the ’90s, I worked for Susie Givens with Givens International. One day, I answered a call from a man I will call “Charles.” He and his partner had a request for oilfield drill pipe for export to China. It was 5-inch, 19.50-pound Reg 2 Grade S-135 — about $2 million worth.
To translate the oilfield speak description, the drill pipe would be 5-inch outside diameter (OD). The wall thickness would be .362-inch (called 19.50 pound/foot). This is the estimated weight on the tube after upsetting. The tubes would be internal/external upset (IEU), the standard for the OD/connection combination and heat-treatment to an API Grade S-135. The NC50 is a 4½-inch internal flush (IF) connection and the typical OD would be 6⅝-inch OD x 2¾-inch inside diameter (ID). Drill pipe length would range from 26 to 32 feet (before tool joints), or range 2.
We received plenty of overseas requests for drill pipe, many from sources not known to us. Our company did not sell much of this type of drill pipe into oil well drilling applications. Was this real? Was it one of 50 requests for quote sent out? Business gets done in many ways in other countries. The success of any quotation can easily rest with how “connected” your customer is with the end user.
The world leader in oilfield drill pipe then (as now) was Grant Prideco. I was not sure Grant would grant us a quotation, so I went to another manufacturer. I got a quote, and quoted Charles in return. After a couple days, he came back to seek ocean freight rates and said his contact in China preferred Grant Prideco drill pipe.
I called Grant Prideco expecting be told to contact their dealer in China. They did not know me personally, and Givens was not one of their known customers. We were looking at $2 million in drill pipe. They responded with respect and courtesy, and gave me a quotation. Sometimes when you contact a world-leading company, they have an attitude, but I did not pick it up with my contact there. The quote was higher than the price we had, but not that bad. I quoted Charles.
At Givens, we pretty much chased everything that came in for quotation. It takes time but does not cost much to check out each potential lead. We did not typically get orders for this type of product, so didn’t have much hope for a sale. Once, we sold $100,000 worth of Goulds pump parts for export. Another time, we exported $150,000 in Reichdrill parts to Syria. You never know. Once, I chased a sale of gas compressors for India on and off for two years before it petered out.
Lead time with the China quote grew into an issue. The factory wanted 5-6 months. China wanted 2-3 months. Without much wiggle room, I thought this would kill the deal. I have been this far on big inquiries before. It’s when they go silent. I did not know Charles or his contacts in China. When I sold to Yemen, my contact there told me that, typically, five or six entities sit between him and the end user. Everyone added a chunk for themselves. How many middlemen were between Charles and the buyer?
Charles’s main business was importing computers. His contact used Charles because he lived here and could find his way to a manufacturer. That way was me, and I got him a quote. I regularly followed up, but it took a few weeks to hear back from China. There was another company in China also quoting the Grant Prideco product.
The buyers in China wanted the plant tour. We made arrangements, and Susie and I met them and Charles in Houston. We toured two Grant Prideco facilities. One buyer, a Mr. Chen, seemed to be the leader and spoke English well. We talked and all went to lunch. It went well.
A few weeks passed before they told me we had the order, but that I needed to go to China to sign the contract. Not just China, but Western China. As the meeting date neared, I had mixed feelings about going. I had questions. There had not been much price negotiation. Was our pricing accepted? Or would there be further negotiations? I certainly did not want to spend the time and money to go and end up empty-handed. Maybe that was their plan.
My wife, Randy, got me the flights to get there in time for the meeting and a flight back home. My tickets had me flying on a Wednesday from Dulles International Airport to London and into Beijing, and then taking a connecting flight to Urumqi. Someone would meet me at the airport. My wife, Randy, was thrilled. I was going to a country by myself without knowing the language or where I would stay, or having any contact in China. Charles would be her contact information.
We drove to Washington, D.C., the day before the flight to get my visa. I waited in line for 4 hours and was then told I had to return Wednesday to get it. We drove back to D.C. on Wednesday morning to get my visa, then straight to Dulles where Randy dropped me off. It really hit me then. I was nervous about this trip and had the beginnings of a cold.