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Living Off High EXPORTations


Local manufacturers share how they’ve used resources to increase their share of the global marketplace

Story by Robin Driessen Bruecker

Last year was a great one for Wisconsin exports, with state companies selling a record $23.4 billion in goods and services overseas. This continues a trend during the past several years, which show a cumulative 18 percent increase in Wisconsin exports since 2010.

Canada and Mexico, the biggest importers of Wisconsin goods, increased their purchasing by 5.5 percent and 12.7 percent, respectively, during 2014. The higher numbers came about from more beverages, ethanol, fur skins and organic chemicals going to Canada, and more dairy products, plastics and vehicle parts being shipped to Mexico. In all, Wisconsin businesses sold products to 206 countries last year.

In 2014, Wisconsin exports of industrial machinery – the No. 1 state export product category at 27 percent of total exports – brought in $6.37 billion. The next largest product category is medical and scientific instruments, ranking at 9 percent of state exports and bringing in $2.17 billion. Agricultural exports were up by 13.6 percent to $3.7 billion, and have been steadily increasing the last five years. Water technology-related products increased 7.4 percent to more than $5 billion, and biotech exports increased by 6.8 percent to more than $3 billion.

Additionally, there was an 8.6 percent increase in plastics exports, reaching more than $1 billion in total, with just fewer than half of all plastics going to Canada. Aircraft and aerospace exports increased 32 percent. Among U.S. states, Wisconsin is the largest exporter of more than 40 products, as diverse as cranberries, ginseng, firefighting vehicles, bicycles and outboard motors.

“Wisconsin companies realize exporting is no longer a luxury,” said Reed Hall, secretary and CEO of Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. “It’s imperative for any Wisconsin company seeking a competitive advantage in the 21st century. These strong export numbers show that Wisconsin companies are well positioned to serve the global marketplace.”

Help with exporting

There are numerous programs offered to Wisconsin businesses to help them position themselves in that marketplace. Some are state run, while others are offered regionally through technical colleges and universities.

Several programs are offered by WEDC, among them ExporTech, which is an export acceleration program conducted in partnership with Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership. Through ExporTech, businesses receive individual coaching, support and international growth plan assistance, with an emphasis on CEO/management success factors plus targeted strategy and execution. During each ExporTech session there are three intensive events that take place over three months, with coaching provided in between.

WEDC also has a Global Business Development Program that provides two separate grants – the International Market Access Grant, available up to $25,000, and the Collaborative Market Access Grants. The first is a reimbursement program with four main categories:

 Trade Trips, which help with trade-show expenses;

 Market Customization, which helps with trademark and product certifications, print and website translation, design work and so on;

 Consultants, which help with WEDC trade representative services, business meetings, partner/ distributor searches, attorneys and brokers; and

 Export Education/Cultural Competency, which helps with classes and training seminars.

Making the most of market grants

Appleton-based CMD Corp. already has a broad portfolio of international clients. The designer and manufacturer of high-dollar capital equipment allows other manufacturers around the world to make and convert plastic bags, such as those with drawstring embedded at the top used for collecting trash. As a niche manufacturer with very few direct competitors, CMD already has a strong grasp of the mature domestic market in the U.S.

So in order to continue growing, “we have no choice but to grow internationally,” said Lisa Kain, corporate market manager for CMD Corp.

A few years ago, the company received an international market access grant from WEDC for its sales representatives to attend an industry trade show in Germany, which attracted perspective buyers from around the globe. While already boasting a strong market presence in Germany itself, the event allowed CMD to acquire new clients in Bulgaria and other emerging Eastern European countries as well as in the United Kingdom, Kain said.

A recent market customization grant of $25,000 awarded earlier this year will allow CMD to translate its website to a Spanish language version. CMD also attended an industry trade show in Orlando in late March which attracted numerous plastics industry manufacturers from across Latin America. Kain said CMD hired a Spanish language translator to work at its booth during the expo, where it’s hoping to gain a foothold in emerging markets in which collecting household trash in bags is becoming a more accepted practice. Perhaps surprising to Americans, Kain indicated a number of underdeveloped parts of the world don’t bag their trash, creating substantial potential for CMD to expand its market presence.

While in Orlando, Kain said CMD representatives planned to meet with prospective clients representing plastics manufacturers from a handful of South American countries. “All these countries have different rules and regulations,” related to equipment and processes in their manufacturing facilities, Kain said.

Fortunately, WEDC has resources available to Wisconsin exporters to help overcome those obstacles as well.

Helping partner firms reach out abroad

The Collaborative Market Access grants involve WEDC helping organizations, local economic development offices and industry associations coordinate export projects in which Wisconsin businesses participate. In this case the organization passes the WEDC funds along to the involved companies.

WEDC also has a network of Wisconsin-based market development directors as well as authorized trade representatives in 54 countries. These experts provide assistance with market assessments and partner searches and facilitate business meetings.

And since there’s a lot to be learned from experience, WEDC also offers Global Trade Ventures, which enable Wisconsin business executives to join state officials in a targeted region for customized meetings with potential customers and/distributors. Participating Wisconsin companies gain global business intelligence and contacts, as well as financial and market support from the state.

FEECO International Inc. in Green Bay is one local company that has participated in a Global Trade Venture. For the past five decades, FEECO has exported American-made bulk-material process equipment to numerous countries. The company has had a regional office in Melbourne, Australia since 2011, which provides convenient process development and material testing capabilities to Australia, Oceania and Southeast Asia. Brian Madigan, FEECO’s director of business development, traveled on a state-sanctioned trade venture to Australia in 2013, which gave him more opportunities to meet potential customers face to face.

“Across Australia there are companies looking to improve efficiency, solve material problems, and to convert waste into value-added products,” Madigan said. “The market assessment and partner search work provided as part of the trade venture was something that would have taken much more time, and maybe with less results, if we would have undertaken the search completely on our own. The quality and quantity of customer contacts we made as a result of working with the Wisconsin trade representative, Angela Foley and her people, has exposed new opportunities and has set a path for future growth of our business in Australia.”

Local networking more often

Northeast Wisconsin International Business Network is a peer network and education group available to all regional companies who wish to talk to other businesses about exporting. NEWIBN was founded by Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay. Both separately offer global programming and other resources, and combining their services under NEWIBN enables them to reach more New North businesses. The group meets four times a year – twice at each campus.

“The focus is for local companies to have access to current information on issues, practices and trends that influence all aspects of international business,” said Dean Stewart, dean of corporate training and economic development at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.

Resources provided by NEWIBN include a speaker series, discussions about emerging and current global trade issues, global markets and business operations, and networking opportunities. Topics cover a broad range of global issues that include best practices, security, finance and credit, logistics and more.

“Our membership includes not only organizations that are currently involved in global trade, but companies that are new or looking to start,” explained Stewart. “We also have representatives from state partners like WEDC, as well as organizations that support companies involved in global trade.”

Oshkosh Corp. is among the New North companies that have benefited from NEWIBN’s services. The manufacturer exports $1.6 billion worth of products annually, which includes defense and fire vehicles as well as maintenance, mixer and refuse trucks. Oshkosh Corp. representatives have attended several seminars that covered topics such as global marketplace changes, letters of credit and foreign exchange, according to Nancy Ebben, director of international finance for the heavy-duty truck manufacturer.

“Oshkosh’s ongoing corporate strategy is to continue to increase export sales to offset fluctuations in the U.S. economy and to increase global market share,” explained Ebben. “Being aware of the economies expecting growth as well as those experiencing turmoil definitely assist us in better understanding our challenges when entering a market. The speakers that NEWIBN has attracted have been very knowledgeable and approachable.”

Additionally, a large portion of Oshkosh’s export sales involve using letters of credit for payments, which means the company’s international staff need competency and creativity in “addressing certain challenges due to country, customer and currency,” Ebben said. That’s how another recent NEWIBN seminar came in handy.

“Increasing exports will always generate more questions, though, on compliance, financing and currency risk, to name a few,” Ebben added. “NEWIBN is very aware of the issues that exporters need addressed and offers an opportunity to network with other exporters, as well as learn more about what the current climate is. The presenters have always been great.”

Other exporting resources available include the Wisconsin U.S. Export Assistance Center (, a service of the U.S. Commercial Service of the U.S. Department of Commerce. This federal agency has a team of international trade specialists to assist small and medium business.

New North B2B Publisher Sean Fitzgerald contributed to this story.