‘I made a sale to Saudis, dressed their way’

Damaris Eugênia da Costa is a Brazilian woman who exports product to Arab countries. A partner and diretor at export-import company Braseco in Brazil, she sells glass, wood and paint around the world, and has been doing business with Arabs for over ten years now. She traces back her steps for the premiere of ANBA’s The Arabs and Me section. Read all about it below.

Isaura Daniel

I have a very close relationship of friendship with Arabs. I have friends among Arab importers. It all started in 2007 as I went on a mission with the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency (Apex-Brasil) and the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce to Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt. I had to bring in deals for Braseco in Brazil, or else the company could go out of business. We used to ship glass and wood to Africa, but in 2005 there was a civil construction boom in Brazil and the companies we represented no longer had enough product available to export, because they had to supply the domestic market. Nevertheless, I still had enough to get a few deals going.

During the mission, I was unable to sell anything in Morocco, because it’s really close to Spain, and we weren’t competitive at all, price-wise. Tunisia needed the material in French, and not every Brazilian company has material available in French. But we went to Egypt and I had the chance to become acquainted with Dr. Greiche, the biggest glass processing company there. This is a company that makes mirrors and windshields, and I really wanted to sell their product, even if it was auto glass. So I started buying mirrors from them to sell in Africa and to build a friendship. I’d ship it to Angola, I’d ship it to Ghana. Next they started buying auto glass from me. I didn’t have any glass for architecture, but I had auto glass, which is a special type of glass. It was a two-way street. After the mission, I went back to Egypt and I went to the Embassy of Brazil in Cairo to find out who else was buying auto glass. I learned of other companies and then I started selling other types of special glass.

“The whole Arab world flocks to that show and that’s where I took off”

After that, I went on a mission with Apex and the Arab Brazilian Chamber to Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE. During that trip we went to Big 5, the building industry show in Dubai, and it was amazing. The whole Arab world flocks to that show, as do importers from the African continent. That was where I took off. The first deal I made was with a project for planned doors, windows and furniture in Oman. It was a wonderful project. Then we did another major project for Nigeria with a Lebanese construction company. Everything was done from Dubai. I joined other Apex-Arab Chamber missions, I went to three Big 5 shows, and each client would refer me to another. Andrea [Monteiro Uhlmann, former Arab Chamber operations director, since deceased) helped me out a lot. Whenever I wouldn’t go to a trade show, she’d take my material with her.

Currently, Braseco exports mostly product by companies Cebrace, Duratex, Berneck, Solida and Eucatex. We sell mostly glass and wood. In the Arab world, we currently sell to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. Those countries account for 70% of our business volume.

“The reason I was hired was because I knew English and typing”

But Arabs came into my life even before all that. As an Advertising and Marketing student, I worked as a secretary at an export company. The owner, Guilherme Hannud, was from a Syrian family. Guilherme used to work in Africa, and many of his clients had migrated there from Lebanon. It was my first job, and the reason I was hired was because I knew English and typing. My mother was a geriatric nurse and she cared for Guilherme’s grandfather.

I also worked with Joseph Nassar, a Lebanese man, and then I was invited to work at Nishizawa, a Japanese company. Nishizawa and Germany’s Braseco opened a joint office in Brazil. Nishizawa would buy lots of fabric and textile yarn, but this industry was struggling at that point, so the company left Brazil. Since Braseco used to focus on building materials, it decided to stay and got invited to join the office in Brazil as a partner.

I had a vague awareness of Arabs, from the companies I had worked in, but I had no actual experience of Arab culture. The first Big 5 trade show I went to, I shared a stand with Igor [Erhard Kaufeld], who used to work with me in the wood industry. Every man that would enter the stand would ask me for coffee or water, but they would only talk business with Igor. I’d keep to myself. Only Igor would come to me asking questions, and they started to realize that I was somebody, so the importers started coming up to me and asked me to join the talks at the stand. It was quite interesting and positive.

” I went under the umbrella of the Arab Brazilian Chamber and Apex”

I guess what helped me break through in the Arab market was the fact that I didn’t just go alone at first; I went under the umbrella of the Arab Brazilian Chamber and Apex. Afterwards, the Chamber brought importers to Brazil, and so did Apex, and I met them in Brazil, and they gradually realized I was serious about it. When you give correct quotations, quick replies and feedback and you care for your clients, you gradually build trust.

When I went to Saudi Arabia, I went alone, because the people from Apex went first. I didn’t have the outfit that the women wear, but I put on decent clothes – long pants, a blouse and a scarf. As I boarded the plane, I saw people dressed like me, but once we got to Riyadh people started covering their heads, so I got off the plane and this guard came up to me. I told him I didn’t speak Arabic and he asked me where I was from. When I told him I’m a Brazilian, he threw his arms open and said “Braziiiiillllll.” I smiled and he started going on about Ronaldinho, he asked if I knew Ronaldinho and said: “Look, this is the women’s line (for the Immigration Area) and when you get out there, you cover your head, don’t go anywhere without covering your head. Not the airport, not the streets; the only place you can go to without covering your head is the hotel.” He was very kind. When I left the Immigration Area, the Apex people were waiting on me. They had brought a women’s outfit and I put it on. It was an interesting experience, because in this mission, I managed to strike a deal. I negotiated with the Saudis, dressed their way (with the abaya and the hijab) and I began selling product to them.

“Right now, I’m selling in the Bermuda Islands!”

I’ve been in foreign trade 40 years now, and I never tire of learning. Each trip, each mission, each client brings me something different. It’s amazing how you learn through foreign trade. You get to speak to people from all over the world. Right now, I’m selling in the Bermuda Islands! I’m learning about a different culture. I’m not sure whether my client is white, black, yellow, I don’t know what they look like. It’s a great experience.

Thank God I’ve been in this business from the start. I took English lessons since I was little. My mother tells me that whenever I’d hear someone speaking a different language, at a very young age, I’d run up to listen. It was my speaking English that brought me into this line of work. If I didn’t speak English, Guilherme would never have hired me. I never imagined working in foreign trade, I didn’t even know what it was, but I fell in love with it from the get-go. The first time I went to Nigeria and saw my glass being loaded off at the client’s warehouse, I wept. It was like giving birth. It’s great when you get to a client’s warehouse and see your material that came in from Brazil, you see the client coming in, getting interested and purchasing. It can’t be explained!

Nowadays, I like to imbue businesses with an export-driven mentality, the globalized mentality that Brazilians do not have. I am deputy chairman of Conselho Brasileiro das Empresas Comerciais Exportadoras (Ceciex), the international arm of the São Paulo Trade Board (ACSP), and we do lots of actions in tandem with the Apex’s exports program Peiex, which gets small businesses export-ready. Smaller businesses are afraid to export, and Ceciex works for export-import companies to become a gateway for those smaller business to go international.

Translated by Gabriel Pomerancblum

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