The input of export: Idaho companies look for help to grow overseas

Idaho businesses often seek to build sales abroad but don't know where to begin.

zkyle@idahostatesman.comJanuary 27, 2014 

  • Where businesses can seek help

    Idaho Department of Commerce

    Commerce provides and coordinates export counseling, trade missions, trade shows, international buying delegation and foreign-investment promotion. The department works in concert with the U.S. Department of Commerce's Commercial Service.

    Go to commerce.idaho.gov. or email Amy Benson, director of the Boise office for Commercial Services, at amy.benson@trade.gov.

    Export-Import Bank of the United States

    The Ex-Im Bank aims to increase U.S. exports by offering businesses credit and insurance programs. The bank offers insurance against nonpayment, lines of credit that allow foreign buyers to buy U.S. goods, and loans to U.S. companies for exporting or to foreign companies needing up-front cash to import from U.S. companies. The bank says it supported $35.8 billion in export financing in 2012, $50 billion in export sales and $6.1 billion in small-business exports. Go to exim.gov.

    Small Business Administration

    The SBA offers the following export programs, each with their own eligibility criteria:

    • Export Express, which offers financing up to $500,000 for exporting.

    • Export Working Capital Program, which provides advances for up to $5 million to fund export transactions, including purchase orders and collections.

    • International Trade Loan Program, which offers loans up to $5 million for fixed assets and working capital for businesses that plan to start or continue exporting.

    Idaho District Export Council

    The Idaho DEC is a volunteer organization of Idaho business people with exporting experience. The council offers export counseling while working in tandem with the Commercial Services office in Boise. Visit export.gov/Idaho/.

A "30-year startup." That's how General Manager Jennifer Ellsworth describes her small Boise tech company, Unisun Software.

Unisun develops programs used by fresh produce packers to track their onions or strawberries along shipping routes to their destination markets. The privately held business, with nine employees, has built its customer roster and says its revenues rose 38 percent last year, though it declined to disclose sales. In October, Unison moved into a larger space near the Boise Airport.

But Ellsworth is looking for a bigger boost. The U.S. market for produce-tracking software is close to saturated, since tracking is required by food-safety regulations. So Ellison is looking to Mexico, which has an abundance of U.S.-bound produce. She thinks Unison could double or triple its sales by expanding south.

First, she needs a plan. Unison must find distributors, rewrite software and tunnel through trade laws. It must assure potential Mexican clients that it will stick around to provide support and software updates for years to come.

"That's why every thought process of strategy and development is sort of a trust game," Ellsworth said. "We have to be sure we're thinking several steps ahead."

Idaho businesses often seek to build sales abroad but don't know where to begin. "Getting into exports can be very intimidating," said Jason Prince, chairman of the Idaho District Export Council, a group of volunteers who mentor business executives new to exporting.

HELP IS AVAILABLE

Treasure Valley businesses that want to get into exporting have several free or inexpensive resources at their disposal, including the council and state and federal business-development agencies.

Prince said Idaho companies frequently make two common mistakes. The first is launching into exports without doing enough research to know what they are getting into. The other is jumping blindly into rapidly developing "hot" markets — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — instead of first identifying markets that fit best.

Ellsworth said a Mexico expansion must start with a feasibility study. That would tell Unison whether it would be best served by partnering with a sales specialist or with another software company as a joint venture. A study would also answer critical questions about how many customers Unisun would need to gain to break even on a software rewrite and what software would and wouldn't need to be translated into Spanish.

Unisun needs help to put the study together - help Ellsworth said she's still seeking. She said she reached out to Boise State University in hopes that graduate students might see an opportunity to help, but she hasn't heard back. The Idaho Department of Commerce has put out feelers through its Mexico office for potential partners.

Other companies have found success already. Fairfield-based High Country Fusion found a match for its high density pipe, fittings and other industrial products in Australia. High Country Fusion started exporting two years ago, totaled $3 million in exports in 2012 and more than doubled that total in 2013.

Boise cosmetics maker Epionce found opportunities in doctor's offices, spas and department stores in affluent cities in Ireland, Poland, The Netherlands, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada and The United Kingdom. Marketing Director Trish Stack said the foreign markets stabilized sales.

"A wonderful thing about international sales is it helps cushion and buffer," Stack said. "During the recession, when things were a little rocky domestically, having those international sales really helped."

Zach Kyle: 377-6464, @IDS_zachkyle

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