He also brings his own interpreter to do business with these potential suppliers.
The owner of Toronto-based importer Fair Trade and Handmade Eco Friendly Gifts over the past three years has learned that using international languages while doing business is all about balance: It shows respect, as does asking about local customs, while an interpreter makes sure the business side goes smoothly. "The devil's in the details. I don't want any surprises at the end," says Mr. Kovacs, who spends $45 to $50 an hour for a translator.
Mr. Kovacs is joining a growing segment of small-business owners who recognize the value of leveraging language. It's not about being totally fluent, to the point where you can negotiate a contract, it's about understanding how language aids a business relationship and then using it to your advantage.
Toronto's Spanish Solutions – which helps companies learn business customs, translates documents and provides live interpreters – is experiencing increased demand as people working overseas seek an edge.
"People are looking for ways to grow their businesses. Building a relationship is key in some cultures and being able to do that in the native language can be a competitive advantage," says Katharine Spehar, president of Berlitz Canada. Her company's 12 training centres across Canada are increasingly serving small-business owners.
Mando Mandarin, a New York-based online language school established in 2009, teaches adults and kids and it is witnessing rapid growth in its overall business. Founder and president Michael Cheng says the growing number of adults includes people working for large companies and entrepreneurs.
Interest is high in Mandarin, Spanish, Portuguese and improved French.
The increased awareness around language has a lot to do with how much international business Canadian companies are doing. They exported $447 billion worth of goods in 2011, and imported $445 billion. While our main trading partners, the United States and Britain, present no language barriers, we also do billions in transactions with the likes of India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Korea, Japan, Mexico and China.
"English is the predominant language of doing business internationally, and that's not going to change," says David Bhamjee, manager of small business for west and Atlantic region at Export Development Canada (EDC).
But that's not the whole story. Having some grasp of conversational Indonesian, for example, helps when dealing with manufacturers there, as does Spanish for those in the mining sector with partners in South America, and knowing a little Arabic for companies in the oil and gas industry.
Knowing local greetings, everyday sayings and popular concepts, both social and business – the idea in China of guanxi, for instance, your personal connections or network – shows respect and goes a long way toward building a trusting relationship with overseas partners. It also means there's something to talk about over a business lunch besides just business.
"Learning the language is a sign of trying to connect with them. Taking an interest in their culture and taking the time to build a relationship," says Mr. Cheng of Mando Mandarin.
Mr. Kovacs, who employs an average of two employees in quieter months and eight during the busy retail season in December, has found that to be true in his travels to small communities in Asia, South America and Africa. "Your relationship grows a lot faster when you speak some language."