Get out! Charleston trade program targets exports

Exports from Charleston area businesses jumped 69 percent from 2013 to 2014.

The Export-Import Bank was in the headlines again Wednesday, after the president pressed Congress to reauthorize the once-obscure agency.

That same afternoon, at a business event on Daniel Island, the international trade spotlight was fixed on local companies that aren’t near large enough to qualify for the federal lender’s services.

Not yet, at least. But the hope is someday they will, assuming the Ex-Im Bank survives.

Retired Boeing Co. executive Geoff Schuler provided the backdrop.

“Our goal is ... to train over the next five years 100-plus companies on how to export their goods and services worldwide,” said Schuler, the steering council chairman for World Trade Center Charleston, part of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.

The initiative got its start in 2012, when the Brookings Institution launched an effort to boost U.S. exports, keying off a priority that President Barack Obama set after taking office. The Washington, D.C.-based think tank has reported that every $1 billion in sales abroad of domestic goods and services generates 5,400 to 6,000 jobs back home.

But exporting goods or knowledge can be a daunting and time-consuming process, especially for small, cash-strapped businesses that aren’t familiar with the many ins and outs. That’s where the World Trade Center Charleston training comes in.

It’s a crash course that delves into logistics, international legalities, marketing, finance and other topics over four daylong sessions. A network of experts and mentors is available for guidance afterward as companies put what they’ve learned into practice.

To date, Schuler said, 12 local employers have completed the export experience sponsored by World Trade Center Charleston. Two recent standout graduates were recognized last week for expanding abroad: The GEL Group and Fog Free Technologies. A fresh crop of recruits will begin their coursework in September.

The Brookings export program began in 2012 with four metro areas — Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Portland, Ore., and Syracuse, N.Y.

Charleston, a natural candidate given its port, international visitor industry and other worldly attributes, was added to the mix, along with eight other cities, the following year.

“It was quite an honor ... to be selected,” Schuler said.

The Charleston plan looks to capitalize on the economic diversity of the region and its working waterfront to lift local exporting activity within a broad swath of industries, from medicine to automotive to environmental cleanup services. Boeing’s growing presence — based partly on the expectation that its expanding North Charleston operations will lure more international suppliers to the area — makes aerospace another obvious hot spot.

The 787 manufacturer’s influence already has juiced the local trade numbers. Businesses in the Charleston metro area shipped $2.4 billion more goods to foreign customers last year than in 2013, the eighth-biggest increase in the nation. The 69 percent spike pushed the region up to No. 49 among all U.S. export markets.

“Big export sales mean more revenue, which translates into economic growth and jobs,” said Dorette Coetsee, director of the U.S. Commerce Department’s Commercial Service office in Columbia. “There is a great potential for more exporting—particularly among smaller businesses that have yet to explore their full export potential.”

When World Trade Center Charleston released its growth plan, international sales — including Boeing 787 deliveries and outbound shipping containers filled with locally made goods — accounted for slightly less than 12 percent of the region’s economic activity. Newer numbers show that has climbed to 13.5 percent. The goal: 20 percent by 2020.

Schuler said the trade center is “keenly focused” on hitting that number, by schooling domestically focused local business about the virtues of exporting.

Wells Fargo senior economist Eugenio Aleman, who took the floor on Daniel Island a few minutes after Schuler to discuss the global business outlook, likely felt as if he was watering down the punch bowl. As he sees it, a stagnant Eurozone, a slowdown in China, a strengthening greenback and other global factors will create stiffer headwinds for U.S. shippers.

“The prospects for export growth are still positive,” Aleman said after his presentation. “The problem is they’re not going to be as positive as they have been for the last 10 years.”

Even so, Charleston holds a fairly strong hand.

One card, already face up on the table, is Boeing South Carolina and its fat backlog of 787 orders from customers around the world.

The others are Mercedes-Benz Vans and Volvo Cars North America. The two foreign-owned manufacturers are expected to start exporting some of the vehicles they’ll be making at their new Charleston area factories within the next few years.

Contact John McDermott at 937-5572.