International trade represents a huge component of New Jersey’s economy. With a major seaport and airport, the state is solidly connected to global markets. And that can be good for local businesses looking for new ways to generate revenue. But getting involved in the export game can be daunting.
That’s where the New Jersey Business Action Center comes in. The center offers grants and other resources to business owners and executives seeking sales overseas. NJBIZ recently spoke with NJBAC Executive Director Melanie Willoughby and Gregory Larkin, an export promotion specialist with the organization about what they can do for companies that are ready to start working in other countries and those already in the business seeking to build better processes and connections.
What follows is an abridged version of that discussion. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity. A video of the full interview is available at NJBIZ.com/njbizconversations.
NJBIZ: A lot of business leaders are coming out of the pandemic and starting to think less about just surviving and more about where growth is going to come from. So, I’d like to start by asking you both to pretend that I’m a small business owner and I come to you, and I say I think I’ve got something here that can work internationally, overseas. What are the most important issues that I need to know about, right up front?
Gregory Larkin: Through the business action Center the office of export promotion, we have a program through the Small Business Administration called NJ STEP, for the state trade expansion program and it allows companies to apply and, if approved, they receive funding to participate in trade activities, the most common one being trade shows where the STEP program Graham would pay for the booth costs and the registration fees around the world. We prefer the company to participate in international trade shows — domestic shows are fine, as long as they’re internationally focused.
The STEP grant can cover up to $25,000 in trade expansion programs and activities — trade shows, translation of your website translation, of literature, translation of catalogs. Even some some creative such as billboards overseas.
All in the hopes of meeting foreign buyers, making sales, overseas and hiring, including here in New Jersey. So, the STEP grant is a job creation program.
Melanie Willoughby: And also I think we also provide some folks who are novices the expertise they need in order to be able to sell overseas. We hold their hand through that process.
Larkin: Being with the office of export promotion we have a strong network of different organizations that can help a company. So if a company comes to us that has never exported before, one of the first things we could do is look at … the classification of their product or service and we can run through the database to see where that service or product is flowing around the world.
Then what we could do is target a few of those countries and that’s when our network comes in. We have a close [relationship] with the U.S. Department of Commerce — there’s two offices, one in Newark one in Lawrenceville — and they have staff around the world, in all the U.S. embassies. And they have many, many services available to help a company find a distributor a wholesaler or end users.
And those programs [involve] a nominal fee — maybe $900 — and it’s covered under the STEP grant, So it gives the company a way to see, “Hey is XYZ country a good match for us?” And they have the due diligence of the U.S. Government behind it.
The other is, we have a close working relationship with the EXIM Bank, the Small Business Administration, International Trade Office and if a company is starting out from scratch, we work closely with the Small Business Development centers here in New Jersey. They can work on a business plan and export marketing plan getting them up and registered, picking what is the best business organization for them.
So, it really depends on whether the company is in the process of just starting out exporting or are they an experienced exporter looking to expand and grow their sales into another country.
Q: So, essentially – let’s stick with a novice company — what you’re doing is trying to help people introduce themselves, by don’t you saying, by going to trade shows, and the like. Then you point them in the right direction about where to find some of the people overseas that they will need. Am I describing that part of it accurately?
Willoughby: Yes, you are. And to that point, the governor has a very specific interest in ensuring that women and minority owned businesses and veteran owned businesses are really helped in exporting their products. And many of them would be new to exporting because they’re small companies, and they would need that extra special assistance. So, we’re going to be focusing this coming year on helping those companies. We’re going to be looking across the state to try to find these companies who don’t even think about it, but we’re going to help them to think about it.
Q: And the governor is willing to travel internationally, I think a lot of other people are now willing to finally travel internationally. Are you seeing a greater interest now in exporting among New Jersey companies to extend their reach overseas?
Larkin: Yes. I think just from my point of view, working with all the STEP clients over the past six months, companies have been more willing to go to trade shows domestically and a good percentage of them are going international. It makes us feel good that companies are getting out there, trying to meet new companies.
Q: OK, but still there must be some challenges. At this point, what are the main obstacles that a company faces – and here let’s move it beyond a novice company to one already working overseas — what are the biggest challenges? We’ve heard about supply chain issues. There are still travel issues. Cost of materials. What considerations play into the notion of reaching across the Atlantic or the Pacific?
Larkin: I’m seeing companies letting me know that shipping costs are now a big, big concern for them. And many of them are having trouble putting out a bid because they aren’t sure on the shipping costs because it changes weekly for them. So that is a very large hurdle that that our New Jersey companies are dealing with.
Q: OK. Well, I think that probably holds for most companies. But what I think most people think about when they think about a company doing business overseas is traveling and actually doing the work overseas. There are a lot of overseas companies that do business in New Jersey — many that have their U.S. or North American headquarters here. Are there opportunities there to deal with those kinds of companies and get into get into this business that way?
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Willoughby: We certainly do have a lot of companies that have decided to do business in New Jersey and that’s one of the things that the governor is very intent on doing is trying to help companies and other countries come to New Jersey — like the companies in Israel that he’s hopefully going to be bringing back just like he did when he went to Ireland and brought companies back to New Jersey as well. And that’s Choose New Jersey, which is the private organization that the governor works with to try to attract companies into New Jersey. So the Business Action Center focuses on helping companies in New Jersey export so that their ROI here increases. The ROI for New Jersey increases when we have companies coming in and importing into New Jersey, but these little companies that we work with, we’re looking for them to get an ROI increase … so that they can hire new people and expand their business, which is what our hope is through the programs, that we do here.
Larkin: Melanie that’s a really great point. I mean many of these companies, these STEP clients have very small budgets, and you know, many are confused about whether they should start the process of exporting, yes or no. And just by giving them a small grant to go to a show overseas really makes a big difference and that grandtpays for the booth and the registration and you know some of the other additional costs, like lead generation, things like that. But it really helps them to get out there and possibly meet a new client. And we have many examples of companies that have participated in trade shows, or even redone their website into a foreign language, where they were able to meet a new buyer.
Q: Well, that was the next thing I was interested in. What sort of opportunities are available to New Jersey companies overseas? Number one, are there certain businesses, certain industries that flourish here in New Jersey that lend themselves to this more than others? And what is the market like these days? I mean it’s kind of a strange economic situation coming off the pandemic. Businesses seem to be holding their own a little bit, but there are challenges with hiring and employment and things like that. Do you all feel comfortable saying to folks yes, if you’re ready to go, you can succeed in this?
Willoughby: Well, I think we are looking at helping all the companies that come to us to see if they can get to export but focus actually on the new to export in the food and beverage manufacturing industry. So those industries, right now the seventh largest in the state, and right now they export $1.8 billion. And we’d like to focus on the small companies who are in minority women owned businesses to identify them and help them with this.
So we’ve decided that that’s a really great market and one in which we can help them be really successful. That doesn’t mean that other companies who decided that they want to be able to export their goggles or their widgets — or services even — that we won’t work with them to help them see if there’s a market for them. And I think that’s the important thing is that we’re going to check if there’s a market. If there isn’t we will let them know.
Q: I did read about the focus on food and beverage manufacturing and what I thought I heard you say was that that was something where you could really help the women- and minority-owned businesses. I bet, just from our reporting, that business does lend itself to exporting because there’s a there’s an infrastructure in the state. The Food Innovation Center at Rutgers, and a lot of opportunities to build domestically here.
Willoughby: So we are working very closely with a New Jersey Food Innovation Center that is going to be a partner with us in identifying these companies. But we’re focusing on women- and minority-owned businesses because it’s part of the governor’s economic plan and we feel that many of the people who are exporting now are ones who’ve been in the market. They are seasoned travelers and they aren’t thinking about how to expand into other countries. We want people who aren’t even thinking about exporting because they don’t have the confidence to do it. And so we want to build that confidence and show them that they can really expand their ROI.
Q: We’ve talked a lot about those kinds of companies who are new to exporting. You mentioned earlier that you can also help companies with more experience in this business. What sort of services do you offer some a company like that and maybe wants to do a little bit better or doesn’t think it’s getting the most out of what they’re doing.
Larkin: I think what I’m seeing is companies are looking to expand and looking to add another country. and I think we, we could do that in multiple ways.
One is through the U.S. Commercial Service, maybe doing an international partner search to check who would be a good partner for this company. The second would be after they go to a trade show and maybe meet one or one or two customers it’s time to start looking at their website and the e-commerce portion of it. So redoing their website with a more international focus. Putting on an international currency. Translating their website into multiple languages.
I just had a company wanting to expand into Canada. The STEP grant is paying for their translation of packaging into French Canadian. It’s a very expensive endeavor and STEP covers it. The company is really looking forward to tapping that market.
So those are just a couple things that the STEP grant can help with for a company that is already experienced in in exporting and maybe needs that extra push, through funding, to move on to new endeavors.
Q: OK. So New Jersey businesses are not alone.
Willoughby: New Jersey businesses are not alone. We’ve been here for over 30 years right making these opportunities for businesses … We go outside the box. Someone says, “I need a loan for my water heater, something broke.” And we’re on it. Let’s see what we can find for you. This is what we do, and this is how these [we solve] problems every day. We’re here.