TAMPA — Chemical Containers Inc. has been in business for 30 years, saturating the Florida market and expanding into the Carolinas and Georgia, even procuring government contracts.
When it came time to spread beyond U.S. borders, though, the company needed guidance. Using an export marketing plan developed by the University of South Florida Small Business Development Center, the company has established partnerships in the Dominican Republic and is working to do the same in Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama. It recently sent a contingent on a trade mission to Chile, where it is hoping to find a distributor for its containers, used mostly for spraying herbicides and pesticides on crops and for aquatic weed control.
“The people at the small business center have been wonderful,” said Gary Gamble, international sales director for the Lake Wales company. “I would recommend them to any business. Anybody getting in the international market has got to go to the center if they want to succeed.”
The USF center, one of about 1,200 small business development centers throughout the country, has been around for some 40 years. In the last decade, it has moved its focus from helping people start businesses to helping existing businesses flourish. Growing businesses translates into more jobs, said Regional Director Eileen Rodriguez.
Annually, the center interacts with about 10,000 businesses through one-on-one meetings, seminars and workshops. Most of its services are free.
To date, it has developed about 15 export marketing plans, said Selma Canas, international trade specialist for the USF center, located at Port Tampa Bay. It also has what it refers to as growth acceleration services, which it can use to help businesses expand.
The center partners with Enterprise Florida, which provides $3,000 scholarships to manufacturing businesses that want an export plan. The companies chip in another $500 and the center formulates the plans using databases not typically available to the average small business.
The first step is for a company to apply for the marketing plan, Canas said. A company has to have been in business for at least three years, have at least 15 employees and have $500,000 or more in annual sales.
Once a company is accepted into the program, the center conducts a thorough interview to learn more about the business.
“We are the research arm and the assistant to help companies develop their international marketing strategies, especially if they are new to exports,” Canas said. “We help them to become export ready.”
The center looks for countries with market potential for the specific products a U.S. company sells, Canas said. “We look at GDP, growth rates and industrial production indexes to determine if a country will be a good partner.”
For at least four of its clients, Chile is a great fit, Rodriguez said. All four participated in the recent trade mission to Santiago. Chile is rated the No. 1 most desirable country in South America to trade with, due to political and economic stability, its free-trade agreement with the United States and the professionalism of its entrepreneurs, she said.
Once an export plan is complete, U.S. Commercial Services, an arm of the U.S. Commerce Department, steps in with its Gold Key Service and makes contacts and sets up appointments in the foreign country. When the U.S. companies arrived in Chile, for example, their representatives got drivers, interpreters and a set of appointments. That is all included in the $3,500 plan fee.
A Brooksville company called Monster Transmission, which also got an export marketing plan, was one of the center clients that went on the recent Chile trade mission. Monster made some immediate business connections with plans to massage those connections and find a distributor for its products.
“It was extremely well organized from even before we left,” said Curt Thomas, Monster’s vice president of operations. “They matched several companies that fit our industry very well. Between the small business development center and the U.S. embassy in Chile, it went very well. We met with large distributors, smaller distributors and end users for our products. All were very receptive to our products.
“We look at specific indicators for specific companies,” Canas said. In Monster’s case, Chile was a perfect fit because it doesn’t manufacture any of its own automobiles and is in constant need of parts, she said.
The trade mission, put together by the Tampa Bay Export Alliance, included a group of local politicians, business leaders, tourism officials, representatives from Port Tampa Bay, Tampa International Airport and economic development agencies.
“It’s everyone working together to foster international trade,” Rodriguez said. With 85 percent of a company’s potential customers located outside of the U.S., she said, these trade missions are essential. “You get a lot more out of face-to-face meetings. It’s not the kind of stuff you get over the phone or on email.”
U.S. Commercial Services can also set up individual trade mission trips with Gold Key Service. Michael Torres, with Goodyear Rubber Products in St. Petersburg, said his company has had success on such trips and would recommend that other companies give them a try.
He called the trips a “very good learning experience” that have helped the company make connections and find ways to partner on foreign soil to sell its conveyor belts, industrial hose and hydraulics.
“Everybody understands that small business really is the engine of the economy,” Rodriguez said. “And we want to make sure they have adequate programs available to help them grow. We are focusing on the job creators and the wealth creators.”
The center gets 37 percent of its funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration, 22 percent from the state of Florida, and the remainder from Hills- borough and Pinellas counties and USF.