Networking among exporting professionals in NE Wisconsin provides lessons, opportunity
Story by Sean Fitzgerald, New North B2B publisher
Sales from Wisconsin companies to customers outside the United States continue to climb year after year.
EXPORT DATA RELEASED IN LATE February indicates international revenues from Wisconsin firms set another record during fiscal 2012 of $23.1 billion, an increase of nearly 5 percent above the previous export record achieved in 2011.
Clearly opportunities to claim marketshare abroad are rich – only 4 percent of the world’s population lives in the U.S. And that remaining 96 percent of the planet represents quickly emerging economies where its citizens are consuming many of the same products associated with Wisconsin manufacturers for the very first time. That means many of the best opportunities to increase sales may not necessarily be close to home, but overseas.
While many of us may think exporting is only the domain of mega-sized companies, the fact of the matter is that the occasional sale to Canada or to Mexico does, in fact, constitute international business. And as a company’s experience grows from just a handful of transactions abroad, the prospect of entering additional foreign markets becomes easier and easier.
Learning from others
YET, SOME OF THE GREATEST LESSONS in international trade aren’t necessarily found in a textbook. They come from understanding how others have overcome challenges in selling product abroad, whether it be cultural sensitivities to certain marketing strategies, using Incoterminology properly to ship a container, or learning various food product safety regulations country by country. The failures and triumphs of one company entering a new market – say, Vietnam, for example – can provide a clearer blueprint for another firm to enter that same market more effectively and efficiently later.
To that end, the Northeast Wisconsin International Business Network was established last fall with the intention of encouraging local companies to access current information on issues, practices and trends that influence all aspects of international trade. The network is spearheaded through Fox Valley Technical College and features a speaker series highlighting global thought leaders, discussions on current and emerging issues in global trade, and of course, networking opportunities.
“We thought a network like this would be helpful because we don’t have an international business association (in the region),” noted Marie Martin, director of global education and services at Fox Valley Tech. For years the school has offered various training to employers in the region on working professionally with other cultures. In 2009 it launched a Global Business Professional certificate program that allows professionals working in international business to take up to six one-credit, two-week courses focusing on various aspects of global trade. Once completed, students are prepared to sit for the North American Small Business International Trade Educators certification exam.
Dozens of Fox Valley managers who handle international transactions for their firms have taken all six courses and successfully passed the NASBITE exam. Those individuals often became closer with fellow students during each course, but in the time since their coursework was wrapped up, there’s been few opportunities for them to further interact with one another. This newly created network enables local international trade professionals to connect at least three times each year in a structured, yet inexpensive, format.
“I think the networking with other business leaders in the Valley where we go through scenarios others have dealt with – like freight forwarding – will be valuable,” said Frank Verhagen, the Midwest, international and specialty markets sales manager for Pacon Corp. in Appleton. “It’s a good forum for everyone to air some laundry, and for others to pile on additional information as it fits the discussion.”
A former student of FVTC’s Global Business Professional certificate program who also earned his NASBITE certification, Verhagen helped the paper converter of art and educational products access a customer in the United Kingdom back in 2001. Since that time, the company has grown its foreign markets to include customers in 57 different countries around the world. He’s accepted the role as the inaugural chair for the steering committee of the new Northeast Wisconsin International Business Network, and genuinely hopes more companies in the region will consider expansion into markets outside the U.S. they may not have previously investigated.
“I’d like to see more companies embrace international business,” Verhagen said. “A number of small to medium-sized businesses don’t realize the opportunities available. I think unfortunately here in the United States, we have this impression that the world revolves around us.”
Resources to help
THE GOOD NEWS FOR LOCAL COMPANIES reticent to expand their marketing efforts beyond U.S. borders is that plenty of assistance is available. Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. supports an entire segment of its agency dedicated to international business development and delivers several programs aimed at helping state firms enter into new markets abroad.
A new Global Business Development grant program rolled out last year assisted 19 Wisconsin companies enter into new markets during the course of fiscal year 2012, which ran from July to June. Less than eight months into fiscal year 2013, the state has already extended grants to 30 companies across the state, reimbursing them for expenses associated with a new or expanded international market access strategy, indicated Lora Klenke, vice president of international business development for WEDC.
“We want to be able to not supplement a company’s budget (for marketing in an area where it already has a foothold), but to support their efforts to go into new markets,” Klenke said, noting international trade expos, trade missions and business matchmaker services are some of the most common uses for the grants, which can be available for up to $10,000.
Despite the initial success of the state program, few grants have been issued in northeast Wisconsin because few applications have been received by WEDC for the program. Appleton Marine received an international marketing access grant to reimburse it for costs associated with attending the Shipbuilding, Machinery and Marine Technology International Trade Fair last September in Hamburg, Germany. Another Appleton company, Rollguard – a division of Great Northern Corp. – is receiving similar assistance for some of its staff to attend the International Converting Expo in Munich, Germany later this March.
The company had attended the same trade show for the first time in November 2011 and were amazed with the sales opportunities it introduced.
“The people that stopped by (the Rollguard booth) were in awe and said they’d never seen anything like this before,” said Rob Swannell, general manager for the manufacturer of stabilizing cradles to help more safely and effectively transport nearly anything cylindrical, such as large rolls of film or rolls of paper. Swannell said its products are widely known domestically when the company attends trade shows around the U.S., but didn’t realize there was little awareness abroad of the kinds of solutions they could provide, as well as the fact that no other company was offering a similar product.
Since that time, orders from Europe have increased and Rollguard’s online visibility has skyrocketed among the shipping departments of paper and film manufacturers across Western Europe, all thanks to the introduction to the market during the 2011 trade show, said Heather Sass, marketing manager for Rollguard.
In the 16 months since that last international trade show, Sass said the company has made adjustments to its search engine marketing campaign to reflect variations in industry terminology across the pond. As an example, she said what’s referred to as “rolls” here in the U.S. are known as “reels” throughout most of the rest of the world, a characteristic not reflected in the company’s promotional literature or on its Web site until the past year, Sass said. And because its various products are mostly defined by dimension in terms of feet and inches, Sass said, they’ve been working on sales materials that translate those sizes to metric system measurements.
“That will be more helpful to our staff when talking (to visitors) at our booth,” Sass said.
BESIDES TRADE SHOWS, THE GRANTS available from WEDC can be applied toward the kinds of market customization activities Sass described earlier, according to Klenke, such as translating a Web site or brochures into another language. Some companies have hired consultants particularly adept at conducting commerce in a certain region with assistance matching them to prospective customers and helping to get their products through customs or to pass any regulatory hurdles.
In addition, Klenke said the grants can be used to help train and educate employees involved with the company’s export strategy, such as attending export seminars or obtaining various certifications necessary to sell certain manufactured goods in other countries, with electronics or medical supplies as examples.
Wisconsin also has outreach offices in Canada, Mexico, South America, Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia providing support for business endeavors in 36 different counties, Klenke said. Its menu of international outreach services also includes technical assistance; a series of seminars and trade missions; and the agency’s popular ExporTech program, a three-month-long course offered at locations across the state which teaches participants to develop a go-to-market export strategy. More information about these and other resources is available online at www.inwisconsin.com.
Growing revenues by opening doors abroad can provide one of the most effective manners for some local firms to significantly drive up sales. Fortunately, assistance is available right here in northeast Wisconsin to help local firms with little to no international experience reach out across borders. One just simply has to network with other international business professionals who learned the same way, Pacon Corp.’s Verhagen said.
“(Selling internationally) can’t just be done by the seat of your pants,” he said. “There’s a large enough of a resource of people who can provide answers to the questions you might have and point you in the right direction.”