At a glance

What: World Trade Center Charleston recently graduated its first round of companies in a program to encourage firms to enter or expand export business.

details: The three-month course includes classes taught by representatives from the S.C. Department of Commerce, S.C. Small Business Development Center and U.S. Department of Commerce/Commercial Service, along with World Trade Center Charleston.

Why: The program is part of an export-boosting initiative that the World Trade Center unveiled in 2012 with help from the Brookings Institution.

What's next: The World Trade Center is holding another series of classes starting in August.

The disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011 meant services could be needed from the GEL Group, thousands of miles away in Charleston.

It was shortly after the meltdown at the plant that the West Ashley-based environmental consulting business had its first assignment in Japan: gather information to help companies understand food contamination related to the nuclear fallout, said Mac Hodgson, GEL Group vice president.

"We responded to the urgency of our clients' needs with our services," Hodgson said.

The GEL Group is now looking to persue a partnership with Tokyo companies on radiation analysis to help with the dismantling and removal of the reactor.

The GEL Group has done similar nuclear and environmental analysis for government and public utilities in the United States since 1981. Now, its looking to expand and diversify by offering its expertise in international markets such as Canada, United Kingdom and Asia.

"In the U.S., we have seen a decrease in demand in certain markets, and so we are trying to find other markets for our services," said James B. Westmoreland, director of the radiochemistry division. "Some of our domestic markets are slow, but other international markets are actively seeking environmental services. For example, some of our services are applicable to the international nuclear and oil and gas industries."

To help with the growth, officials from the GEL Group recently completed a three-month-long export training program designed to help local firms export their goods and services.

The program is part of the Charleston Metro Export Plan, an initiative that World Trade Center Charleston, a part of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, unveiled last year with help from the Brookings Institution.

Brookings has picked Charleston as one of eight U.S. communities to participate in its Metropolitan Policy Program, which aims to increase exports based on their local assets and capacities.

The export course the GEL Group participated in included presentations by representatives from the S.C. Department of Commerce, the S.C. District Export Council, S.C. Small Business Development Center and U.S. Department of Commerce/Commercial Service.

In addition to the GEL Group, other graduates of the program were Streit USA Armoring, Striped Pig Distillery, UEC Electronics and TIGHITCO.

"This program is for companies who have never exported before or may have done it one or two times, such as they may have a friend there, but never had a strategy for exporting," said Pennie Bingham, executive director for the World Trade Center Charleston. "In GEL's case, they have been approached for their services and they wanted to take advantage of that and be clear on what they have to do."

Hodgson said the export program gives the GEL Group access to government services and resources such as U.S. Commerce Department online databases.

"We have plans for each country we are targeting, and it's up to us to execute and hopefully use the resources and tools we learned from the program to help us do that," he said.

Times have changed since the GEL Group was founded as General Engineering Labs Inc. by George and Molly Greene in 1981 with a handful of employees offering environmental consulting and analytical field services.

The Greenes sold the company in 2001 to focus on their then-fledgling nonprofit, Water Missions International. The buyers were James and Kathleen Stelling and Doug Earnst, who all serve as the top executives.

The GEL Group has been gradually expanding services at its West Ashley campus and adding more staffers. Today, the company employs about 300 workers and includes roughly 200 dedicated to its laboratory operations based on Savage Road.

In 2009, the company started to reach into Europe, following the lead of companies that would need analysis for projects such as decontaminating polluted properties, Westmoreland said.

"What GEL has learned over the last 30 years is how to quickly get our customers sufficient data to make important decisions," Westmoreland said. "It might be as simple as how deep you will need to scrape an area. Is it an inch or six inches and how deep is the contamination? That's the role we play."

Company officials said the export training program also helped the firm better understand how to market its services abroad and learn about different business cultures.

"Our challenges are unique that our services are available in the country already and we are coming in with services and competing with companies that already speak the language and know the customs," Westmoreland said.

The company, which also includes subsidiaries like GEL Engineering, is also looking to use its technologies to help with pollution reduction efforts in China.

"Our engineers are experts in evaluating what is the particulate emitting out of the stack and what can you do to reduce it," Westmoreland said. "So we had some traction in providing that expertise in China."

S.C. Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt, a former BMW executive, said it's beneficial to have companies involved in exports.

"Through these training opportunities, and with other one-on-one assistance by Commerce staff, our small and medium-size companies can find success exporting to markets around the globe," Hitt said. "That assistance, coupled with our logistics infrastructure and port facilities, make South Carolina the ideal hub for international trade."

World Trade Center Charleston is launching another training program in August and plans to teach as many as 100 local companies within the next several years, officials said.

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550.

Environmental firm GEL Group, other local companies learn about global markets