In the summer of 2008, Peoria was ranked as
the 20th largest market for exports from the U.S., with sales totaling
$5.3 billion. This places Peoria just behind Atlanta, and ahead
of much larger metro areas, including St. Louis (#23) and Tampa/St.
Clearly, our high ranking is due in large part to the export success
of Caterpillar and our agriculture-related products. However, what is
often misunderstood is the strength of small- to mid-sized firms in
the Peoria area. At the Bradley University Illinois SBDC International
Trade and NAFTA Opportunity Centers, we interact daily with these
companies and have the benefit of learning what they do right. And
getting it right is critical, as research has shown that companies
engaged internationally pay higher wages and retain employees
longer. In addition, access to international markets is critical in a
recession to help mitigate lost domestic sales, even with depressed
Here is a summary of the exporting best practices used by many
firms in central Illinois.
Companies that succeed internationally have the full support of management.
Going international can take time and test the patience of
managers. Without commitment from the top, employees won’t be
able to push through the barriers and challenges encountered when
expanding exports. They also will not grow their exports as quickly. But
how do you increase that commitment if it is lacking? I faced this situation
in a previous position in the computer industry. The company’s
president saw our international sales as a way to ‘dump’ older product
at higher prices—not a good long-term strategy. Everything changed
after a single sales trip through Europe. He quickly saw the tremendous
potential to increase exports by changing our strategy. Thereafter,
I always made sure all foreign distributors visiting our headquarters
stopped by and met with senior management. So the key to building
commitment is to be sure top management is fully engaged.
Proactive Foreign Market Selection
Many companies let their foreign markets choose them. This is
understandable, as often companies are focused on their U.S. sales.
An inquiry from an overseas distributor may lead to signing an agreement,
even though the U.S. company did not specifically select that
market. In other cases, companies choose which foreign market to
enter based on countries their competitors have selected. This reactive
approach is fast, easy and low-cost—but not always the best
route. Your competitors and initial overseas leads may be misleading.
The most important markets may be elsewhere. This is particularly true if your competitive analysis only included U.S. companies. Foreign
competitors may have long known of other markets of significant
importance in your industry. Their markets may still be missing
from your selection process.
The companies we see with export success base their market
selection on a thorough marketing analysis using industry and market
data, backed by visits to the country to confirm strong product or
Strategic Foreign Direct Investment
Companies with strong export success ultimately must develop
greater control and feedback from their foreign markets. This is best
done by getting closer to the customer. The process may begin by
simply hiring a sales manager based in a foreign country to oversee
local and regional distributors. The manager may work out of their
home, minimizing expenses. Eventually exports grow sufficiently
to justify an office with local staff. Though sales may still be made
through distributors, the foreign office ensures all company functions
are successful, including marketing, training, support and
logistics. We have seen good examples of this in China, where deep
relationships are often critical to success. By opening a “rep-office,”
the U.S. company gains a stronger insight into the China market and
can better develop their export strategy.
Promote from Within
In general, the employees in local companies that have international
responsibilities began with the company in a domestic capacity. This
is also common in larger companies. To be effective in representing
a company overseas or in dealing with export transactions, you
must first understand the company inside and out. Employees dealing
with international issues often have to act fast and across many
departments, which requires not only knowledge of the company,
but the support of fellow employees. When traveling overseas,
company representatives are essentially ambassadors and must
be well versed on the company, its history, and its products and
services. How does a company develop the necessary international skills? Bradley University offers a variety of workshops and training
programs in international trade, and the Chicago area has weekly
Local companies know they cannot do this alone. Central Illinois
enjoys a number of resources to help a company go global. We have
excellent supporting companies to offer financial, legal, accounting
and logistics support. There are numerous nonprofit entities, including
the Heartland Partnership, Peoria NEXT and the International
Trade and NAFTA Opportunity Centers at Bradley University. Peoria
also hosts the only downstate U.S. Department of Commerce Export
Assistance Center. And our numerous sister-city relationships also
support our trade interests.
What Can We Still Do Better?
Ranking in the top 20 is great, but we can still do better. First, companies
must remain focused on the basics of export success. We encourage
companies to add one to three new export markets per year. It is also
useful to participate in a new foreign trade show. These often have
the support of the State of Illinois or U.S. Department of Commerce,
which can assist with matchmaking and logistics.
Secondly, a growing concern is international trade compliance. In a
post-9/11 world, trade transactions have become more complex, and
remaining compliant with U.S. regulations more difficult. Meanwhile
the penalties for noncompliance have become more severe. Regulations
often change with little time to prepare, such as the recent “10
Plus 2” Importer Security Filing. Even long-standing compliance issues
remain problematic. We recently assisted a company that, unfortunately,
had been incorrectly completing the NAFTA Certificate of Origin
for many years, possibly resulting in fines. To address these issues, companies
must continue to seek education and assistance, and develop
strong relationships with their freight forwarder. We are launching
a service later this year to serve as a “trade compliance check-up” so
companies can benchmark their compliance efforts.
Finally, companies need to be more aggressive in their trade financing.
Last April, we hosted a workshop on effective trade finance to help
companies be more effective in the financial aspects of trade transactions.
This includes greater use of foreign receivable insurance, leveraging
government programs for debt financing and keeping abreast
of accounting rulings to maximize international profitability. These
many not be headline-grabbing issues, but when used effectively, they
greatly strengthen a company’s international trade.
Notwithstanding these challenges, we should celebrate our
region’s export success. Watch out Atlanta! iBi