Export expert, Google provide tips to business owners

Billings Gazette

by Tom Howard

The president of the Export-Import Bank expressed surprise Thursday when dozens of Montana business owners said they had successfully sold their products in other countries.

“That’s good,” Fred Hochberg said after asking for a show of hands from a gathering of around 100 people.

With a population of around 1 million and a small manufacturing base, it appears that the cards would be stacked against Montana firms trying to boost exports. Although Montana ranks 48th among all states in export sales, it has a couple of other factors on its side. Montana is the nation’s top state for entrepreneurship, and the growth in economic activity is 10th highest among the states, Hochberg said.

Hochberg said the Export Import Bank is working hard to meet President Barack Obama’s challenge to double U.S. exports over the next five years.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who invited Hochberg and other trade experts to the export summit, said boosting exports translates into more jobs.

“There’s incredible opportunity, an incredible customer base out there,” Tester said during the gathering at Rocky Mountain College.  “It’s just a matter of giving our businesses the tools to access that customer base. A lot of small businesses are looking locally, and that’s great. But for those who want to expand, it’s crucial to bring folks like Fred here.”

The Export Import Bank, formed during the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt, is the federal government’s key agency for financing and facilitating U.S. export trade.  The agency provides key financing that assists large and small U.S. exports. The agency accomplishes its goals without taxpayer support, Hochberg said.

Many American businesses are leery of exporting because they fear they’ll never get paid. The bank’s financing programs guarantee that exporters will be paid, thus reducing risks to American firms, Hochberg said.

Montana businesses export about $2.06 billion worth of goods and services, according to the state Department of Commerce.

That’s dwarfed by the nation’s $1.8 trillion in exports and $2.52 trillion in imports for 2008. Trade with Canada makes up nearly a third of all Montana 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 at $213 million. Industrial machinery, including computer parts, is a distant fourth.

Wood’s Powr Grip, a Laurel company that manufactures specialty vacuum-assisted lifting equipment, has seen its export business surge in recent years. But the company’s exports to European countries have slowed this year, in part because the value of the euro has fallen against the dollar in the wake of the European financial crisis.

A weaker euro means that it costs more to buy American manufactured goods, said Barry Wood of Woods Powr Grip.

Asked how the European financial situation plays into the effort to boost U.S. exports, Hochberg said it’s likely a temporary problem that will improve over time.

Suresh Khanna, manager of strategic partner development for Google, explained how the company’s sophisticated technology can put exporters in touch with customers from around the world.

Internet users regularly turn to Google for a variety of information, including researching Civil War battles and finding a good restaurant.  But a host of other tools, including an application called Google Export Tool, can put American business in touch with billions of customers across the globe.

Google’s translation software easily translates documents or websites into other languages. It’s a feature that Khanna uses in a restaurant that he owns. Because about 80 percent of his employees are Hispanic and speak little English, he uses Google to translate the restaurant’s newsletters, meeting agendas  and memos to improve communication with his employees.

Another tool, Google Analytics, provides detailed information on the people who click on a website: what country they live in, how long they stay on the site and what key words they click on.

Google’s applications are popular for people who use mobile computing devices such as cell phones and iPads, Khanna said.

Outside the conference, Tim Mulholland, president of Headwaters Floating Island, a company whose products are used to clean up polluted water, said his market tends to be more regional at this time, but there’s potential for exports in the future.