What: A federal- and state-funded program intended to grow export potential of small- and medium- size companies in South Caroli- na.
Resources: Provides tools such as market research, translation of marketing materials, trade-show expenditures and participation in training workshops.
Who can apply: Companies must be headquartered in South Carolina and have an exportable, market-ready product.
The company also must be either a small rural business, a for-profit, independently owned and operated for at least one year with 500 or fewer employees; or labeled a small disadvantaged business.
S.C. Department of Commerce
Scout Boats was forced to slow production and slim its workforce as the recession sent sellers of luxury goods into a tailspin, including the boating industry.
But the Summerville manufacturer recently has been adding to it payroll, cranking up production and branching into new international markets with the help of a publicly funded program aimed at stretching the export potential of small businesses.
"We had an international presence beforehand, but it is no doubt that this program has helped me increase my outreach," said Alan Lang, Scout's national and international sales manager.
The State Trade and Export Promotion Program is a three-year pilot program by the U.S. Small Business Administration. The effort provides matching-fund grants for states to assist small firms to enter and grow in the international marketplace.
The goal of the federal/state shared program is to increase exports by small businesses by providing practical tools like market research, translation of marketing materials, trade-show expenditures and training workshops.
The SBA initiative has funding of $60 million, according to its website. Of that, nearly $280,000 has gone so far to the South Carolina program, which is a collaboration with the S.C. Department of Commerce.
South Carolna's take from the federal program is smaller than some neighboring states. For example, North Carolina and Georgia have received $945,564 and $831,349, respectively, according to data.
South Carolina officials attribute the smaller share on the Palmetto State's size compared to its neighbors.
Still, officials are looking to grow its STEP program, which, to date, has assisted 59 small- to medium-size South Carolina companies. That has resulted in $2.9 million in export sales, according to the state commerce department.
The U.S. International Trade Administration estimates that nearly 5,000 jobs are supported for every billion dollars in exports.
With South Carolina's 2012 exports at about $25.3 billion, that means South Carolina exports support about 126,500 jobs, according to the commerce department.
"South Carolina companies are successful exporters, driving our state to an all-time record $25 billion in goods in 2012," said S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt, a former BMW executive. "While our state's larger companies are big contributors to export activity, small businesses represent around 95 percent of employers in the state. The STEP program is designed to assist small- and medium-sized business enter foreign markets for the first time, troubleshoot the export process and, importantly, connect with buyers overseas."
Scout Boats, for example, received $14,320 in STEP funds over a two-year period to attend international trade shows. The assistance helped the company peddle its products in new territories like parts of South America.
"We didn't have it in the budget with the slowdown. ... We probably would not have traveled to those places to explore those opportunities without that program," said Lang, the sales manager.
As the market turned down, Scout Boats was forced to reduce its workforce to a mere 30 workers as the economy dried up markets for the company. Today, the company employs 200 and has its sights on expanding sales in new overseas market.
In 2013, the company made 750 boats, which carry retail prices from $18,000 to $375,000, Lang said. The company plans to reach the 1,000 mark this year and branch into more overseas markets.
Bermuda is one of them, he added.
"We just made contact with someone there and we're getting started pretty strong," Lang said. "We want to get over there and do training and get cultivated."
Exporting is old hat to global South Carolina companies like BMW and Michelin. The S.C. Commerce Department would like to build on the experience of Scout Boats and others to encourage more small ventures to try to sell more goods to overseas customers, said spokeswoman Allison Skipper.
"Prior to STEP, many small businesses were simply unable to afford to market their products internationally," Skipper said. "This initiative has been a great benefit to our small businesses, who otherwise would not have taken the chance on exporting."
The drive overseas
The STEP program is just one of several tools officials are using to drive more goods overseas.
A state port tax credit program offers companies credits on their employee withholding and corporate taxes from an $8 million annual fund. The program is intended to increase cargo volume through the state's port system and, in turn, create more jobs.
Another is an export-boosting initiative that World Trade Center Charleston, a part of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, unveiled last year with help from the Brookings Institution.
The Charleston Metro Export Plan calls for forming a regional council to help small businesses increase the volume of goods they ship overseas.
Brookings picked Charleston as one of eight communities to participate in its Metropolitan Policy Program, which is looking at ways to increase exports based on local assets and capacities.
The added help was lauded by the State Ports Authority, which is seeking to increase exports as under its broader plan to grab more marketshare.
"Exports are an important part of the ports authority's growth strategy, and South Carolina companies of all sizes that manufacture goods for export through our facilities play a key role in our success," said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the SPA.
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