Small businesses across Tennessee are breaking into exporting thanks to the help of state initiatives like TNTrade.
Mark Cleveland dreams big. As soon as his athletic compression sock business, Swiftwick, started taking off nationally, Cleveland began thinking globally. With overseas orders climbing online and star athletes from Australia to Columbia wearing the Brentwood, TN- based company’s socks, Cleveland knew he had the potential to build his product into an international brand, but he lacked the time, resources and expertise to develop a strategy for exporting. That’s when the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD) stepped in.
Through TNECD’s TNTrade program, Cleveland found the support he needed to get past the obstacles holding him back. Along with providing market research free of charge, state export specialists helped him tackle learning curves in areas such as international shipping, and NAFTA compliance. The program has also matched the firm up with reputable distribution partners in other countries, including Rock Gear Distribution in Canada. In 2014, Swiftwick signed an agreement with the Alberta-based retail distributor to distribute three lines of its socks, including its cut-resistant hockey socks, to specialty retail stores serving the sporting goods market. Other distribution deals in the United Kingdom and Europe are in the works.
“If we can go from no exports to developing several successful, revenue-generating relationships with international partners in less than a year, any small business in Tennessee can do the same thing,” Cleveland says.
Swiftwick is part of a growing group of small and medium-sized businesses in Tennessee that are working with the state to bring their unique brand of high-quality products and services to markets around the globe. From kayaks, precision bikes and cameras to candles and beauty products, these companies are finding success tapping into demand for their products in markets from Latin America to Asia. TNECD is helping businesses unlock these opportunities through the TNTrade program, which was established in 2013 to demystify exporting for companies new to the process.
“We try to give them a better understanding of what it will involve and take some of the uncertainty out,” says Josh Helton, TNECD assistant commissioner of policy and international trade.
Trade specialists work with participants in the program to help them identify the right markets and distribution for them, understand regulatory guidelines and find overseas partners they can trust. The program also offers an Exporting 101 curriculum to familiarize businesses with the basics of exporting as well as continuing education on specialized issues such as financing, tariffs, and language and cultural barriers.
“The biggest fear companies have when it comes to exporting is taking resources away from what they are already doing,” Helton says. “We try to be a good partner and provide those resources for them.”
Kevin Gay, president and CEO of Hydratrek, has leaned heavily on TNTrade specialists to help him explore opportunities for breaking into new markets overseas and expanding his company’s presence in markets where it already had a foothold.
“Anything you can imagine to ask about, they have an answer for it or know someone who has faced that obstacle before,” Gay says.
Hydratrek makes all-terrain, propeller-equipped vehicles that aid in disaster relief and recovery globally. In the wake of typhoons, tsunamis and other natural disasters, search and rescue teams in the South Pacific and Indonesia depend on these amphibious vehicles to evacuate survivors trapped in flooded, debris-ridden areas that are difficult to reach. Hydratrek’s vehicles also assist with oil exploration in Canada, mining operations in Australia, wind turbine maintenance on the coast of China and transportation for developing countries lacking adequate road and rail infrastructure. Up to half of its business comes from exports.
“Exporting has opened a world of opportunities for us,” Gay says.
Moving into international markets has given the company a competitive edge, taking it places where no other businesses have filled a niche.
“Most of the competitors we have encountered in the domestic market are regional players,” Gay says. “They do a good job, but they stay local.”
Cracking markets overseas has helped Hydratrek land bigger deals, including a recent contract with the Department of National Defense in the Philippines to supply vehicles for search and rescue operations. For a small business like Hydratek, with fewer than 20 employees, the market analysis and guidance provided by TNECD has been a lifesaver, helping the company build upon its exporting momentum without taking time away from his business.
“The insight they provide about rules and regulations of doing business in a country and its culture is helpful because no small business has that kind of expertise under their roofs,” Gay says. “It’s not something we have the budgets to go out and get. It’s a tremendous value, and the state is basically supplying it to us for free in exchange for growing exports.”
Learn more about Tennessee’s entrepreneur programs.