Businesses must be ready for recovery, economist says

Posted May 28, 2009, at 7:50 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — It will be slow in coming, and some areas of the world may not see it for years, but the global economy will recover. When it does, businesses need to be ready — or be left behind, an international economist said Thursday afternoon.

“What you’re doing here in Maine is a central part of getting this [recovery] up and going, but understand you’re not alone in doing this,” said Byron M. Shoulton, vice president of FCIA Management Co. Inc. of New York.

“You’re going to have to be aggressive, you’re gonna have to hit the ground running. You can’t wait until your recovery is here to start making inroads. Your competitors are probably already doing that.”

Shoulton was the keynote speaker at the 29th annual Maine International Trade Day, which brings together Maine businesses with regional, national and international companies. There were about 200 attendees from more than 100 companies representing more than 10 countries from Western and Eastern Europe, Asia and North America.

The event is presented by the Maine International Trade Center, or MITC, and was held at several locations on the University of Maine campus.

Shoulton and Gov. John Baldacci spoke during MITC’s awards luncheon at the Wells Conference Center.

While most of the world is mired in the economic downturn, nations such as China, India and Brazil have fared better than others, Shoulton said, and could begin trade with each other rather than traditional partners.

“They won’t be waiting for Europe or United States,” he said. “It’s important for us to get in there, and get in there as quickly as possible.”

Although the current economic crisis is unprecedented in its global scale, Shoulton said things could show improvement at the end of 2009 and into 2010, especially in the run-up to the winter holidays.

Consumers in the U.S. may be unlikely to return to their heavy-spending ways soon, however, as they struggle to recover from heavy losses.

“They’re going to pay down their debt,” he said. “From an economic standpoint that’s the wrong thing to do. From the standpoint of households, that’s exactly what people are going to do as a response to having lost huge amounts.”

One important factor in the recovery will be higher price levels, he said. Low levels could mean deflation for the world economy. There already have been indications of higher oil prices as crude closed above $65 a barrel Thursday for the first time in six months.

Shoulton recommended a back-to-basics, know-your-customer approach to finding trade opportunities.

“Strategies for the recovery must be placed on the table now, and it’s time for us all to knock on doors and seek new opportunities,” he said.

Baldacci said Maine has seen record export growth, including a 9.5 percent increase from 2007 to 2008, and a 36 percent increase since 2003. He encouraged small businesses to consider their opportunities in the international market.

Trade missions conducted by the Maine International Trade Center have helped foster connections between Maine businesses and international companies. Baldacci cited LaBree’s Bakery of Old Town, which is expanding its jelly roll business thanks to a trade mission to Russia.

“Sometimes [small businesses] keep thinking that the market is so domestic, so local, so neighborhood,” Baldacci said. “But with the Internet, with the global competition and the opportunity to look into markets, there really is a much bigger world out there.”

Trade Day also featured a morning panel discussion at the Donald P. Corbett Business Building and one-on-one meetings in the afternoon for companies interested in meeting with consulates or trade offices.

Bob Ziegelaar, president of Bangor-based Telford Group Inc., said during the panel there are opportunities for small Maine businesses to cooperate in international trade.

“For instance, if you look at the Irish dairy farmers, they have the Irish Dairy Board where they all combine forces,” Ziegelaar said. “They have their permanent marketing staff and they’re selling Irish butter and cheese to the U.S. … We haven’t done so well on that front. Typically our traditions have been of independence, of not letting our competitors know what you’re doing, and that hasn’t served us so well. I think there’s a lot more cooperation coming about now.”

Baldacci and MITC President Janet Bisaillon-Cary handed out the organization’s annual awards, as follows:

• The Exporter of the Year was Elmet Technologies, a Lewiston-based manufacturer of refractory metal products.

• The Service Provider of the Year honor went to A.N. Deringer Logistics, which has offices in Bangor, Calais, Houlton and Jackman.

• Lee Academy, which has increased its international student population and opened affiliated high schools in China and South Korea, was named the International Innovator of the Year.

• Cooke Aquaculture of Blacks Harbor, New Brunswick, with a salmon-processing plant in Machiasport, was the Foreign Investor of the Year.

• The Future Global Leader Award went to Andrew Totman of Brunswick, a former MITC intern now in his junior year at the University of Pennsylvania.

• The winner of the President’s Award was Cathy Lee, president of Westbrook-based Lee International.