Wisconsin manufacturers urged to take strategic, not accidental, approach to exporting

02/23/17 in Manufacturing Matters! 2017

Export BlogCompanies that don’t export miss out on 95 percent of the world’s consumers. Companies that do export grow faster, achieve innovations faster, and enjoy higher valuations than companies that don’t.

Still, many companies are “accidental” exporters that simply react to international orders that come in when an overseas customer happens to learn about the project. In a panel at the Manufacturing Matters conference, Roxanne Baumann, director of global engagement for the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, said Wisconsin companies can unlock the full potential of exporting by taking a more strategic approach.

Baumann urged Wisconsin manufacturers who have not yet gone through the ExporTech™ Program to consider enrolling. Over the course of three sessions in subsequent months, the export readiness and expansion program guides participants through the process of identifying the most promising overseas markets for their products and making a plan to enter those markets.

The panel featured practical advice from three Wisconsin manufacturers that have both completed ExporTech and received the Governor’s Export Achievement Award recognizing excellence in exporting:

  • Gamber-Johnson, of Stevens Point, a maker of rugged computer mounting systems and vehicle mounting components;
  • Hydro-Thermal, of Waukesha, a maker of direct steam injection heaters; and
  • Power Test, of Sussex, a maker of dynamometers.

Gautam Malik, chief operating officer for Gamber-Johnson, spoke about the lessons the company had learned while expanding its annual exports from $400,000 to $14 million between 2012 and 2016.

“One thing we realized is that one size does not fit all,” Malik said. “The products successful overseas are not the products that succeed in the U.S.” For example, the company had to downsize its computer mounting systems for the smaller cars preferred in many other parts of the world.

“Relationships are important,” Jim Zaiser, president of Hydro-Thermal, told listeners—“and it’s not just taking people golfing or going to a Packers game.” Those activities can be fun, he said, but Hydro-Thermal has benefited from cultivating deeper connections with its overseas partners. For example, when the company’s international sales representatives visit Wisconsin, instead of putting them up in a hotel, Zaiser puts them up in his home and they eat meals with his family; this type of personal connection is expected in many parts of the world, and goes a long way in developing goodwill and loyalty, he said.

Pat Koppa, president of Power Test, offered advice for maintaining a commitment to growing exports when companies have competing priorities. Koppa recommended budgeting for export expansion and allocating resources to it each year.

He also recommended applying for grants available from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) and others to help cover the cost of export expansion activities. Besides the grants’ power to help relieve the cost of these activities, Koppa said, “If you’re approved for a grant, that really motivates you to execute those international expenditures because you’re going to get reimbursed for part of them.”

In addition to the panel, Katy Sinnott, vice president of international business development for WEDC, chaired a lunchtime table discussion on exporting strategically rather than accidentally, and answered questions from conference attendees on the topic.

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