Tester plans Billings seminar on international exports for Montana

The Billings Gazette

by Tom Lutey

With a little help, Montana could double its international exports, say experts meeting in Billings to discuss bringing more Treasure State products to the global economy.

“The president has an export initiative to double the U.S. exports in five years and we in Montana can double our exports in five years. I think we can get that done,” said Arnold Sherman, executive director of the Montana World Trade Center.

Sherman and other trade experts will gather in Billings on June 3 to meet with businesses interested in global trade. The daylong Treasure State Export Seminar is the organized by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.

The seminar at Rocky Mountain College will include an hour with Fred Hochberg, chairman and president of the U.S. Export Import Bank.

Ex-Im Bank is the federal government’s key agency for financing and facilitating U.S. export trade.

Montana businesses do roughly $2.06 billion in export business annually, according to the state Department of Commerce. Trade with Canada makes up nearly a third of all export sales, with exports to Japan, valued at $130 million, coming in a distant second.

The state’s No.1 export is bulk wheat at $670 million a year, followed by inorganic chemicals at $344 million and metals $213 million. Industrial machinery, including computer parts, is a distant fourth.

However Montana small businesses are making headway in getting products to market, Sherman said. Hot tubs from Stevensville do well in Europe. A market for Montana kosher oats has opened in Israel, and the Israeli Army is interested in buying dry chemical toilets manufactured in Belgrade.

The challenges of delivering Montana products to global markets begin with shipping opportunities and support services. The state lacks a bank willing to handle foreign currency from business transactions, Sherman said. Lawyers versed in international trade law are hard to come by and finding someone to decipher business contracts written in foreign languages is difficult.

State exports have been improving, however. Total exports were slightly more than $500 million just eight years ago, according to the Commerce Department. Every trade category has grown since then.

Given the business potential of global markets, an export summit makes sense, Tester said.

“What I hope people walk away with is an attitude that they can play in the export market and it’s not as complicated as they think,” Tester said.

The senator said 95 percent of the world’s customers don’t live in the United States, though few businesses in state or nationally are tapping export markets. The summit follows earlier meetings concerning government contracts that Tester arranged in Bozeman and Great Falls. The Bozeman meeting drew 350 different contractors interested learning how to contract for federal work.

The Billings event is free to the public.