The Queen's Awards: Helping others sell their wares: What makes a successful international salesperson? Lynne Curry investigates

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The Independent Online
AT 18, Neil Parker, one of twin brothers, went off to university knowing that at the end of his degree he would come straight home to work for the family firm. He has since acquired a joint managing directorship, a company Jaguar, a set of accounts showing a pounds 6m turnover and an aptitude for persuading more than 30 foreign distributors that it would be to their advantage to take large amounts of plastic off his hands.

Mr Parker, 35, is the commercial face of PPE Ltd, Europe's biggest manufacturer of leaflet dispensers. From a factory on an industrial estate in Harlow, Essex, 118 people produce the thousands of containers which stand on counters in building societies, doctors' and dentists' surgeries, garage counters and innumerable other premises and dispense million upon million of leaflets.

PPE's quiet role in the distribution of leaflets - the leaflets are meant to catch the eye, not the dispenser - is counterbalanced by its other product, the point-of-sale display stands on which merchandisers from Parker Pens to P & O Ferries rely to help to sell their wares.

Neil Parker's front-of-house role is also counterbalanced by that of his twin brother, Nigel, who concentrates on production, research and development. Neil became the exporter by dint of handling the marketing side. The brothers, who had worked for weekend pocket money for their late father, Ted, from the age of 11, and had known since school that they would join him, had long since decided how they would divide their responsibilities. Nigel eschewed college and went for hands-on experience with a large display company.

They joined their father in 1980. At that time he was selling to the public through a shop, cutting plastic to size, fitting panels in doors and supplying double glazing. 'We had the technical know-how and a minor amount of expertise and we took it forward,' said Neil Parker.

Exporting was only considered in the mid-eighties and began through a casual meeting with a Dutch distributor. Eventually PPE established distributors in 17 countries, including the US, Scandinavia and most of western Europe. 'I'm travelling most months all over Europe or to North America or Scandinavia. With short hops for the day it's probably more than that,' Mr Parker says.

Exports are now more than a quarter of total sales, which have have expanded by more than 50 per cent. Mr Parker said language was no barrier to exporting since - 'this is probably a damning condemnation' - most foreign business contacts spoke excellent English. Exchange rates affected trade but not crucially.

PPE says its trading philosophy is to go out of its way to keep its customers satisfied. It supports its distributors by providing multi-language literature and direct participation in international trade fairs. To accommodate the US market, it retools its production machinery.

Mr Parker is less specific about the personal qualities that make a successful exporter. 'The display business very much runs on personality and I suppose it's quite a lot to do with the force of your personality. Being responsive to the customer is important. You have to notice what their requirements are and try to meet them.'

(Photograph omitted)