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Grant program helping small businesses STEP up

Brad Schreck, president and CEO, VectraCor, and his son Blake, sales manager, with their VectraplexECG System with CEB. The company got a grant from the Small Business Administration to go to international trade shows, which helped them to grow their business.-(AARON HOUSTON)

Prior to attending the year’s AgraME agricultural trade show in Dubai, Messinas’ products were sold in four Middle Eastern countries.

Prior to attending the year’s AgraME agricultural trade show in Dubai, Messinas’ products were sold in four Middle Eastern countries.

The 20-year-old Washington Township company that makes lawn, garden and pest control products attends about 40 trade shows a year to grow its international business, and for the past three years has done so with help from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s State Trade and Export Promotion Grant Program, which helps small businesses enter the export market by covering their trade show costs.

Messinas has turned $25,000 it received via a STEP grant into a $220,000 profit, with more to come — and as a result of the most recent show, the company was able to strike deals with businesses in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both untapped markets.

“The more exposure we get into certain parts of the world, the more we’re able to ex pand our ability to do business in a new marketplace,” said James Messina, vice president of Messinas. “The Middle East is receptive to organic, natural products like ours, and unlike the U.S. and Canada, the bigger manufacturers aren’t as dominant [there].”

The SBA loan, available through the nonprofit New Jersey Business Action Center, has been available for six years. The NJBAC recently received another $700,000 worth of STEP grants to give out, and Deputy Executive Director Carol McPhillips said it’s eager to do so.

“We just feel that we want to help the New Jersey businesses as much as we can. That’s our purpose here. It’s been so beneficial to the businesses,” she said.

Last year, NJBAC helped 70 small businesses attend international trade shows with the STEP grant, giving 100 percent of the money without taking even a small portion for administrative costs. This year, it hopes to help 80 businesses with STEP.

“We’re just starting out and we don’t have a direct sales force to send out, and it’s not like we have a tremendous amount of marketing dollars. We know when we get in front of the customer we have a good rate because it’s a one-of-a-kind product, and this program helps.”

– Blake Schreck, VectraCor

 “Some of these international deals take years, but we’ve [given] some companies … $15,000 or $20,000 in a grant to go to a show, and they signed millions of dollars in contracts,” McPhillips said.

Blake and Brad Schreck discovered the STEP program this year through a business contact familiar with NJBAC, and with a $10,000 grant were able to attend Dubai’s Arab Health expo in January for the first time to promote products from their biotechnology company VectraCor, based in Totowa.

VectraCor, which sells high-tech electrocardiograms, sold some units to a distributor in India through Arab Health. They used that success as the impetus to apply for STEP assistance to other shows. They’ve since attended the Florida International Medical Expo in Orlando, Fla., at which they struck a deal with a German distributor they’re finalizing agreements with now.

“When you’re a small company, the shows are the most important. That’s when you meet more people than anything else,” said Blake Schreck. “We’re just starting out and we don’t have a direct sales force to send out, and it’s not like we have a tremendous amount of marketing dollars. We know when we get in front of the customer we have a good rate because it’s a one-of-a-kind product, and this program helps.”

Yuhong Jiang, whose Parsippany-based environmental engineering company Brisea International Development Inc. received STEP to attend a trade show in China, said sales of her products are up 40 percent as a direct result of the grants.

But for all that the program affords businesses, she explained, there is a learning curve when bringing your business to other countries.

Along with understanding international regulatory issues, businesses must account for cultural differences, she said.

“American culture with Asia is different, and with Chinese culture, the differences are even further,” Jiang said. “You have to acknowledge the difference between the two cultures and also you need to be very careful to select the partners in China to work together, and that everything needs to be very well-negotiated and defined so that you get paid on time.”

Messina reflected those sentiments.

“Our products are sold in red bottles here to grab consumer attention, but when we displayed them in the Arab world, people thought it was poison because [over there] red means poison,” he said. “Here we are selling organic products … learning that stuff comes with exposure.”

Even having to negotiate the cultural and regulatory differences, Jiang couldn’t say enough good things about the STEP program.

“We got so much help from STEP. I really want people to know it,” she said. “It helped the business. If it was very difficult to apply, we wouldn’t have spent the time on it, but it’s very easy and very helpful for the business center team to encourage us.”

NJBAC’s McPhillips said that approximately half of the latest $700,000 STEP grant is still available.

To apply for a STEP grant go to www.nj.gov/state/bac-njstep.shtml

Gabrielle Saulsbery
Albany, N.Y. native Gabrielle Saulsbery is a staff writer for NJBIZ and the newest thing in New Jersey. You can contact her at gsaulsbery@njbiz.com.

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