Businesses find value in trade missions

Gov. John Baldacci and other members of a Maine trade mission to Spain and Germany on a tour of REpower Systems' turbine facility in Bremerhaven, Germany, last fall. (Photo courtesy of Maine Today Media)
Gov. John Baldacci and other members of a Maine trade mission to Spain and Germany on a tour of REpower Systems' turbine facility in Bremerhaven, Germany, last fall. (Photo courtesy of Maine Today Media)
Posted Dec. 24, 2010, at 6:40 p.m.
An unidentified Korean man introduces himself to Wade Merritt (center) director of operations at the Maine International Trade Center in Portland, as Merritt surveys a street vendor's varieties of dried and cooked squid and octopus on Monday afternoon. Jeffrey Porter (right), senior international trade specialist with the Portland office of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Commercial Service office, looks on. They are in the Myeong-Dong section of Seoul, South Korea. (Bangor Daily News/Anne Ravana)
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An unidentified Korean man introduces himself to Wade Merritt (center) director of operations at the Maine International Trade Center in Portland, as Merritt surveys a street vendor's varieties of dried and cooked squid and octopus on Monday afternoon. Jeffrey Porter (right), senior international trade specialist with the Portland office of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Commercial Service office, looks on. They are in the Myeong-Dong section of Seoul, South Korea. (Bangor Daily News/Anne Ravana)

In past years, Maine companies have banded together on trade missions around the globe, hitting countries including England, France, Ireland, Germany, Spain, Canada, South Korea and Japan.

The missions, organized by the Maine International Trade Center, opened export markets for everything from frozen shrimp to high-tech lawn mowers, from handles for carrying shopping bags to alternative-energy construction services.

And they’ll be going back in 2011, hitting South Korea in April on a mission focused on promoting Maine’s educational institutions and its renewable-energy offerings — in terms of both investment opportunities and companies that can work on such projects.

This won’t be a gubernatorial trade mission. Gov.-elect Paul LePage, who is set to take over the office well ahead of April, won’t be leading the trip. In most recent years, the trade center has organized both types of missions — those led by a governor and those that weren’t.

While having a governor on board provides companies a higher level of entree to potential customers, there is value to participating in a nongubernatorial trade mission, as well, said companies that have been on them.

The trade center tracks company sales that can be attributed to the trade missions. By and large, the gubernatorial trade missions have more companies participating, and so generate more in sales. For example, in fiscal year 2004, a gubernatorial trade mission generated $6.5 million in sales for Maine companies, while missions without a governor generated $2 million. Likewise, an FY 2006 mission Gov. John Baldacci led to France generated $5 million, while nongubernatorial missions brought in $200,000.

That’s the general theme, though nongubernatorial missions brought in $6.5 million in FY 2008, while a Baldacci-led mission to South Korea and Japan brought only $3 million in sales. The missions are funded through the private companies that participate in them.

The gubernatorial missions tend to get a lot of press, both in Maine and in the countries being visited, said Janine Bisaillon-Cary, trade center president. The presence of a governor means more time spent on protocol, on wine-and-dine type of events. And it can mean companies have access to higher-level politicians, commerce officials, company officers and trade association leaders.

“Gov. King got to meet President Vicente Fox of Mexico — that’s how high it can go sometimes,” Bisaillon-Cary said.

John Cooney, vice president of finance and development at Woolwich-based contractor Reed & Reed, visited Germany and Spain last year on a mission led by Baldacci.

“I think having a governor along did make a difference,” Cooney said. “Certain companies that we wanted to meet with — which were important global leaders in the industry — probably would not have met with us had the governor not been there.”

Reed & Reed had high-level meetings with Iberdrola, the parent company of Central Maine Power, while in Spain. On return to the states, the company met with regional Iberdrola executives, did work for the power company and is on a short list to do a wind project in western Massachusetts.

But that doesn’t mean Cooney would go only on a governor-led mission. He said he’s considering participating in the South Korean mission in April.

At both types of missions, the trade center helps companies research possible customers and set up matchmaking meetings. That face time with company officials is the key to securing export options, or contracts.

Dennis Leiner, chief technology officer of Lighthouse Imaging, a medical device firm in Portland, has only been on missions and trade shows sans governor. The company is small, with only six employees.

“We realize that international is super important, even for a small company like ours,” said Leiner.

The matchmaking has been most useful, said Leiner. Trade center experts helped Lighthouse set up meetings with trade officials in other countries, and helped with all sorts of logistics issues around foreign trade shows, said Leiner.

Today, the company does about a quarter of its sales on the international market, he said.

John Norton, president and CEO of Cozy Harbor Seafood in Portland, has been on both types of missions, with and without a governor.

The missions with governors tend to have a broader focus; there are more companies from a spread of sectors. The missions without a governor tend to be more focused on a specific industry, he said, such as seafood. When that happens, said Bisaillon-Cary, the companies network heavily among themselves, often do business within the group, share tips on international customers and generally are a cohesive group.

The governor-led missions do provide a higher level of access, said Norton, but both are valuable.

Norton said that on his first trade mission, he was hoping to open a market for frozen lobster. That didn’t work well, he said, but he did find a good market for frozen shrimp. That first trade mission got Cozy Harbor into international sales, he said, and now the company exports between $9 million and $10 million annually.

His advice to companies considering a trade mission? You don’t know what possibilities you may uncover until you’re on the ground in a foreign market.

“You never know what opportunities may jump up and hit you in the head,” said Norton.

Norton said another value of the gubernatorial-led missions was the interaction with the governor. That had value for both the companies and for the governor, he said.

“It’s good they learn on the market side what some of the issues are, firsthand, and not just from a briefing books,” said Norton.

The missions have shown Maine’s governors where the state has leverage on global markets, agreed Bisaillon-Cary.

“It’s really served as an important conduit between our governors and understanding the needs, successes and capacities of our companies in a global marketplace,” said Bisaillon-Cary.

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