The Interview: Larry Harding, president of High Street Partners

Annapolis-based firm helps companies connect with the world

  • Larry Harding is founder and president of High Street Partners.
Larry Harding is founder and president of High Street Partners. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
January 01, 2012|By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun

About 20 of High Street Partners' employees are based at its Annapolis headquarters. The rest of its 160 workers are spread around the world, from California to London to Shanghai — which makes sense, considering its niche.

The company helps firms set up international operations and keep them humming, whether it's a U.S. corporation trying to break into Brazil or a European company expanding here. High Street is finding plenty of call for those services: Revenue increased by more than 50 percent in 2011, and the company expects to repeat the performance in 2012.

A year and a half ago, it had 200 clients. Now it has 400 — corporations, universities and nonprofits.

Larry Harding, who founded High Street after working at telecommunications-equipment supplier Ciena Corp., chatted with The Baltimore Sun recently about how equity funding fueled his company's rapid growth, why his clients are going overseas and whether the U.S. is a simple place to do business.

Harding, 48, lives in Annapolis with wife Lynne, who also works at High Street. They have three children.

Why did you start the company?

From '99 through 2003, I was vice president of international finance for Ciena … [helping support] all [the] different countries, all different sizes of offices that Ciena had. After doing that for four years, I learned so many different things and put up a network of resources across the globe, and decided that providing similar services … for other, slightly smaller companies would be an interesting business.

So I started High Street Partners then in 2004 and was really fortunate in terms of the timing. That was when all the sort of world-is-flat globalization boom was just beginning to take off.

The first year, it was three of us over here in Eastport in Annapolis. We were a true back-of-the-envelope startup. I remember the dinner party where I sketched out for a friend, "OK, here's what I'm thinking of doing." I wish I saved the envelope.

What do you do for clients?

There are four different types of needs that they have when they expand overseas. The first is sort of a set-up project. They need to establish a subsidiary or set up a payroll or establish a branch. Second, there are recurring needs. … They need to close the books and pay suppliers, the typical just-operating-type stuff. The third type of service they need is an understanding of what the compliance [requirements] are in that country.

In a place like China, there's probably 15 or 20 things a year they need to be doing — business licenses and just weird stuff that's different than what they'd be used to in the U.S. When they're operating in these complicated territories, there's just a never-ending need for ad-hoc [help] — problems, issues, questions that come up. "I just got this notice, it's written in German, what am I supposed to do with this thing?" … That fourth thing has really been a big market differentiator for us.

No one else is doing that?

No. I think I've started the only business I could actually start, because I've been our customer, desperately needing these types of services. And no, I could never find anybody for that fourth category, and the people I could find for the first three were all really expensive.

How have trends changed over the last 10 years?

The growth rates of some of the developing countries have been so high that companies are incredibly incentivized to go there, so they're going to more places much earlier in their development than [firms] ever did before. It used to be a Fortune 500 company. … These days, it's pre-revenue companies that have that profile.

How has your business changed?

We took on some growth equity funding … the spring of 2010. … Really the biggest reason to do that was to develop an automated application that would perform as a software the things we had previously been doing manually.

It's a little like putting your company on steroids when you get the growth equity infusion. You really have to make sure to keep everything balanced so you're not growing too much one way and not enough in another.

Are companies mainly setting up shop outside the U.S. for lower costs, or is access to growing markets a driver these days?

It's definitely — at least in the client base we have — the access to markets. And I think that's because if they're going overseas for lower costs, that's the type of company who's hiring 500 people in a manufacturing plant in China or an offshore software facility in India, and they just don't fit our profile for needing our services. … They have enough of a critical mass to do everything in-house.

What's your view on the effect offshoring has on American job prospects?

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