When Patriot Taxiway Industries became one of 38 companies nationwide and the only one from Wisconsin to win the President’s “E” Award for export success in 2020 from the U.S. Department of Commerce, company President Kevin McDermott knew he had a lot of people and organizations to thank.
Along the way to success, the Lomira-based provider of aerospace and military lighting products took advantage of the many tools available to companies looking to increase exports. That included participating in WMEP Manufacturing Solutions’ ExporTech program, receiving services from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and seeking help from the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center, the U.S. Commercial Service office in Milwaukee and the SCORE program.
“It’s all been beneficial. It’s amazing how much information people will share with you if you just listen to them,” McDermott says, giving particular credit to Roxanne Baumann, who leads the ExporTech program, and Katy Sinnott, vice president of international business development with WEDC.
Through the various services available, McDermott and the company learned about export/import processes, received help with networking, perfected business plan writing skills and connected with interpreters to help when meeting with key companies overseas.
Today, Patriot Taxiway’s business is split evenly between domestic contracts and exports. The company, which employs 22, exports to four countries and has done business with 10 nations so far.
Like so many other businesses, 2020 proved difficult for Patriot Taxiway. With trade shows not happening, McDermott says maintaining key customer relationships has become more important than ever. He sees the company continuing to grow and as an experienced exporter, the business has more avenues available for reaching new customers.
Chad Hoffman, international trade consultant with the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center Network, says Patriot Taxiway serves as a shining example of a company that takes advantage of the opportunities available. He would like to see more businesses follow its lead.
“Here’s a company that went from nothing in 2007 to winning the export award and it’s because they relied on existing resources,” he says.
Wisconsin ranks No. 22 in the country for exporting, but both the state and nation are underperforming on trade. The International Trade Administration found that 77 percent of small- and medium-sized businesses export to only one or two countries. There’s a lot of room to improve beyond that, Hoffman says.
Companies often begin exporting by happenstance because they receive a call or a reach-out from someone in another country — and then stay stuck at that point. While exporting requires work and some expense, including providing different packaging and navigating regulations in other countries, the more countries a company exports to, the more it pays off, Hoffman says.
While the Wisconsin SBDC Network offers free services and operates centers statewide, including through UW-Green Bay and UW-Oshkosh, many companies don’t take advantage of them. There’s a common misconception that the SBDC is focused on helping only startups or the smallest of businesses, but it’s there to help any business with 500 or fewer employees, Hoffman says. Most Wisconsin businesses meet that threshold.
As part of the SBDC’s Go Global Initiative, Hoffman and his team can provide up to 20 hours per year of trade and export counseling at no cost. The process begins with an assessment — ideally in person at a company’s facility, but it can be done over the phone as well. A company tour can help spur other questions and reveal relevant information, and it’s best for owners or other leaders such as chief financial officers to go through the process.
The assessment takes 45 to 90 minutes, and the consultant evaluates what companies know about available programs and resources. The company then receives a recap email with recommendations based on information gathered and an offer to do referrals to resources that match company needs.
“Really, what I’m here to do is just hold companies’ hands and help them understand what the different resources are. There’s just so many avenues,” Hoffman says.
On the local level, companies can tap the help of trade associations. State resources are available through WMEP Manufacturing Solutions, the WEDC and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. On the national level, there’s the Export-Import Bank of the United States, U.S. Commercial Services, the Small Business Administration and the International Trade Administration. All of those are to name just a few, so finding the right resources is key.
The SBDC can help companies at all levels, from export novices to experienced exporters, and it can work hand in hand with other programs. For example, it can assist companies that don’t feel ready for WMEP’s ExporTech program, or it can help companies that have completed ExporTech become more profitable by implementing programs to recoup certain duties paid or to lower federal taxes on export revenue, Hoffman says. It also can identify previously untapped resources available to more experienced exporters.
Hoffman recognizes that a lot of companies are struggling right now due to the pandemic. Exporting can help them recover, but the process takes time. Businesses typically must set aside one to two years to prepare and plan, he says, but it’s often more of a time investment than money.
Wisconsin offers many benefits to companies wanting to expand exports. The WEDC offers trade ventures, which have gone virtual during the pandemic, and can provide up to $25,000 in grants to offset costs. When Hoffman worked in Illinois, that amount was only $5,000.
“There’s much more advantage to pursuing exporting here with regards to those grants to offset any costs,” he says.
Whether companies are ready to export or not, Hoffman says it’s vital for them to begin thinking about global markets. Ninety-five percent of all consumers, representing 80 percent of the world’s total purchasing power, reside outside the United States, and most of the growth is taking place outside our borders as well.
Hoffman hopes companies will turn to the services of the SBDC. “If a company really wants to go to the next level, all they have to do is raise their hand,” he says.