Going international in Europe

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If you have a portfolio executive offer that has some success in the UK and you’re now thinking to develop a European presence, then it can be a great way to extend what you’re doing.  But recognise some of the barriers to going beyond your existing client base in the UK and consider what tactics you want to use and the trade-offs you are prepared to accept.

Why might you want to develop European portfolio executive clients?

  1. You have existing UK clients that have their head offices elsewhere within Europe, or you have existing UK clients that have significant supplier or customer relationships in Europe and you feel there is an opportunity to extend your international reach.
  2. For personal reasons, you want to have more of an international presence. You would like the opportunity to spend more time in Europe. Perhaps you have a holiday home already in France, or Spain, or Greece.  Maybe you already have family connections in Europe and want to develop a hybrid work style where you are building up European clients and able to spend more time outside the UK.  Perhaps you want to avoid cold and wet English winters or the extreme heat of some Continental summers.
  3. You have built up your portfolio executive business in a particular UK niche and you’re beginning to recognise the potential elsewhere in Europe. For example, as a part time portfolio executive FD you have built up a finance function outsourcing offer and now want to expand this to European clients.

Language and Culture Barriers

The most immediate barriers are the language and culture barriers.  If you don’t already have foreign languages, my recommendation is that you start with countries where English is already the established business language.  Netherlands and Scandinavian countries are often highly accessible to English speakers and there’s often more alignment and acceptance of an Anglo-Saxon in mindset that makes it easier to engage with those cultures. 

When I worked with Andersen globally, it was clear that companies in the Netherlands and Nordics were much more open to partnering and engaging with UK English speaking consultants.

On the other hand, in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, although businesses professionals had good business English, all the important conversations happened in the local language.  To build long term fruitful relationships required good business language skills in your client’s language.  You may need to build relationships in partnership with a local native speaker and find ways of co-delivering services to those local clients. 

Legal Barriers

One of the immediate questions is around the basis on which you contract with them.  Will you contract with them under UK law, or their local law?  Will you contract for payments in UK pounds, or in local currency?  These may feel like minor issues but they can have significant implications for you in terms of the profitability of the work you do. 

My advice to portfolio executives is that as you’ve got a portfolio of relationships and you’re not dependent upon any one client for a substantial part of your business, then the risks you face of non-payment i.e. breach of contract because they don’t pay you, are relatively small and if you are providing valued ongoing services then there’s a strong incentive for them to pay you.  By active credit control, you can manage the risks to an acceptable level.

There are other aspects of the contract that you may find a bit more problematic.  As a portfolio executive, you will need to have professional indemnity insurance.  You are providing significant advice as a third party to those organisations.  You need to be sure that your professional indemnity insurer is relaxed about you doing international business.  You may also need to ensure that your professional indemnity insurer doesn’t put constraints upon the contractual terms you offer.   Often insurers will want you to cap liability to a certain percentage of fees or a certain amount.  You make sure that your professional liability insurer is comfortable with contracts that are under non-UK law or where the jurisdiction of courts is outside the UK. 

European law is primarily based upon a different ethos of legal structure, legal philosophy called Roman law.  Whereas English law is based both upon statute law, equity and common law developed by legal precedent.  The way that litigation is conducted in the two models can be very different.

The second thing is if you do have a dispute and litigate with an overseas counterparty, then it may be difficult for you to recover and enforce the judgment if you then rely upon the local courts to enforce it.  It can often be very attractive to both parties for the contract to actually be subject to binding International Chamber of Commerce arbitration because ICC has established low costs procedures for making sure that judgments are enforced in an overseas jurisdiction. 

There are other aspects of the contract if you use an overseas jurisdiction for the law which you need to be sensitive to.  Intellectual property right and personal liability for example.  It may be that you can contract with a local UK subsidiary of your international client and then a lot of the problems can go away.

Exchange rate risks

If you are choosing to make your invoices payable in an overseas currency then you are taking on a foreign currency risk and which can eat into the profitability of your contracts quite considerably.  If you are going to arrange international payments then, again, you want to make sure that your terms of business lay the costs of the transfer fees on the client rather than on you.  I’ve been using a platform called wise.com and encouraging clients to use wise.com for international payments.  Wise.com has got a very clear option for the client to take all the responsibility for fees and the money goes into your bank account without anything being deducted.  With  some of the other international payment systems, you will end up with your bank charging you to receive money from overseas. 


You may have very good reasons to take your services international and enter the European market.  However, you need to carefully consider the language and cultural barriers as well as ensure that the way you contract and get paid doesn’t compromise your profitability.


Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.