UP FRONT: Flying high

Posted on Aug 1, 2013 :: Up Front
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

The New North has enjoyed a rich and innovative aviation history, from pioneering individuals such as Steve Wittmann to pioneering companies such as KC Airlines, which would become Midwest Express, and Wisconsin Air. Just as aviation played a critical economic role in the area’s past, the legacy continues today with organizations such as the Experimental Aviation Association and commercial operations such as Gulfstream.

Yet many in the region seemed surprised when the Northeast Wisconsin Global Trade Strategy, a study commissioned by New North, Inc., identified aviation and aerospace as one of the industry clusters with the most potential to provide an immediate economic boost through international exports.

Given the rich historical legacy, Marty Lenss can only be surprised people would not see the great potential aviation and aerospace holds for Northeast Wisconsin.

“With everything that is here, I’m just one of those who feels like there is a lot of pent-up opportunity for businesses in this sector,” says Lenss, the former manager of the Outagamie County Regional Airport who was a member of the steering committee that managed the strategy study. “There are challenges, of course – it is very capital intensive – and there are some tax code changes that would help as well.”

While some might identify the increased opportunities with a major company such as Boeing moving into the area, it’s more likely the opportunities will come from the area’s many manufacturing companies and the region’s reputation for being able to design and make things.

Economic development officials from the region are quick to point out that many small businesses are already involved, such as through manufacturing components that are shipped overseas for larger aircraft systems.

One of the initial action items for the global trade strategy is to put together the information infrastructure that can help those smaller companies – whether they are in aviation and aerospace or one of the other industry clusters identified as having export potential – navigate the challenges of working internationally. Staff members at New North, Inc. are already putting that information together. The next step is getting it into the hands of business owners and managers.

“We need to step back here and make sure the economic development people understand the resources and can use it as part of their day-to-day calls,” says Dave Thiel, executive director of the Waupauca County Economic Development Corp. “That will help us help our companies.”

In addition to aviation and aerospace, the study identified traditional industry clusters such as agriculture equipment, chemicals and food processing as having great potential for export growth.

The global strategy document also shows opportunities may be available to companies that normally regard each other as domestic competitors. Located in the same region, they may be able to team up and offer a combined product more competitively than other global suppliers who have to pay freight to move a component from one step of the process to another.