Gateway to market

The path to international exports may be closer than you think

Posted on May 15, 2016 :: Global
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

The gateway to international exporting just happens to open in Northeast Wisconsin.

International exports play a key role in the health of the Wisconsin economy, with Wisconsin companies sending more than $22 billion in commodities and manufactured goods to overseas markets in 2015, representing thousands of jobs. In 2014, the latest year complete data is available, companies in the New North region’s five metropolitan statistical areas exported a total of $4.3 billion, down slightly from $4.4 billion in 2013.

Exports from Northeast Wisconsin comprise about 18 percent of the state’s overall total. Many of those products start their journey on truck or train bound for Chicago and then to the coasts and overseas. But there are shorter routes as close as Green Bay.

“We are pretty fortunate in this state that we have access to Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and the Mississippi River,” says Dean Haen, director of the Port of Green Bay. “We can easily get cargo out to the coasts and into international markets.”

As the western-most port on Lake Michigan, the Port of Green Bay provides a direct link between the Midwest and international markets. While the majority of traffic through the port is for domestic markets, Haen and his staff are working to increase the port’s use as a gateway to international exporting.

In 2015, nearly 89,400 tons of cargo exported to foreign markets originated at the Port of Green Bay, an increase of nearly 26,000 tons in export cargo from 2014. The increase in international tonnage earned the port a Pacesetter Award from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the 12th time the port has received the award.

Most of the increase in tonnage for 2015 is ethanol exported to Canada. The export numbers may be a small percentage of the nearly 2 million tons of cargo passing through the port — most of it bulk commodities such as cement, pig iron or salt —  but they do show the possibilities for export traffic from the port.

The big challenge is getting the logistics right.

“It’s the balance that is a challenge,” Haen says. “It’s one thing to fill a ship up with goods going to Northern Europe, but we also need a ship coming back with the same number of containers.”

Increasing international exports is one of the key objectives identified by the port in its strategic plan created last year. With major rail and truck access serving the docks and providing overnight delivery within a 400-mile radius of Green Bay, it can handle shipping containers as well as bulk cargo.

Additionally, the port’s area of operations includes a foreign trade zone providing incentives that can delay, reduce or eliminate taxes and tariffs on export activity for companies that would choose to consider the port. With just 2 percent of the state’s cargo moving by water, it’s a tool that could open up new opportunities.

Export data from Wisconsin and the region show some of the top exports from the state include finished military vehicles, industrial equipment and a variety of industrial components —  many originating or including parts from Northeast Wisconsin. All could move by water.

Each year the Port of Green Bay transports more than 2 million metric tons of coal, limestone, cement, salt, pig iron, fuel oil, forest products, liquid asphalt and many other essential commodities valued at more than $300 million.

The Port of Green Bay supports more than 700 jobs resulting in $27 million in personal income, and has an annual economic impact on the Green Bay area of between $75 million and $100 million each year. The 14 port businesses pay over $5 million in local and state taxes.

While smaller in scale, the ports in Marinette, Manitowoc and Sturgeon Bay also have facilities to handle cargo and can tie directly into other ports that ship internationally.

Water is not the only way to access foreign markets. In late April, the region was provided a new gateway for international commerce when Appleton International Airport opened its new U.S. Customs and Board Protection inspection station.

While its intention is not necessarily to move tons of commodities or finished products to overseas markets, the new inspection facility does make it easier for companies based in Northeast Wisconsin to do business on a global scale. It removes the hurdle of inbound international travelers — perhaps international buyers or returning executives from regional companies — having to stop at another airport with customs facilities, costing time and money.

“It’s only about 300 yards from (the Appleton airport) that people are finishing some of the best aircraft in the world,” says Bergstrom Automotive CEO John Bergstrom, noting the Gulfstream facility located there. “If they don’t have to stop somewhere else first, it opens the gates to future jobs and growth that make this a better place to live and work.”

The opening of the new inspection station caps a five-year effort by Appleton International’s leadership team to increase the international reach of the regional airport.

“It’s important support to provide the community,” says Airport Director Abe Weber, highlighting the many companies from Northeast Wisconsin that do business overseas. “It provides better access to the global markets. It saves time, money and makes them more efficient.”