‘I honestly believe exports are the future of Wisconsin’s economy’
ExporTech helps five companies prepare to distribute globally

By Katherine Michalets - Freeman Staff

June 19, 2015

 Roxanne Baumann, director global engagement for the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, right, congratulates ExporTech graduates Chris Bessent, DVM, second from right, and Robert Vialpando, both of Herbsmith Inc., while Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, left, watches on Thursday at Waukesha County Technical College. Five companies received certificates from WMEP for their participation in ExporTech and creating plans for international distribution.   
Katherine Michalets/Freeman Staff

PEWAUKEE - Speaking to five southeastern Wisconsin companies who were about to graduate from ExporTech with a plan for international distribution on Thursday, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch said they were strengthening their companies, and in turn, helping the state by diversifying their customer base.

“I honestly believe that exports are the future of Wisconsin’s economy,” she said to the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership representatives and the graduating companies at Waukesha County Technical College.

Kleefisch said she is looking forward to sharing these businesses’ attributes with foreign investors, such as the South Koreans she met last week.

“I feel like we have a room of extraordinary businesses,” she said.

Robert Vialpando and Chris Bessent, DVM, of Herbsmith Inc. in Hartland said they learned a lot from the ExporTech program.

“To me it was this brick wall,” Bessent said. “(I was) trying to run and not getting very far.”

During the program, Bessent said, she learned about the good, the bad and the ugly regarding exporting.  She hopes international exporting will take place for the company in the coming year. Herbsmith creates herbal supplements for pets and horses.

Darrell Fink, retired vice president of Americas sales for Harley-Davidson Motor Company and an ExporTech grad, said it’s vital for a business to have a strong export plan.

“You can have the best product in the world, but if you have bad distribution, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

There is some simplicity with exporting because it tends to be easier to target potential buyers. When dealing with a $30,000 motorcycle, it’s best to target the 1 percent in developing countries that can afford the bike.

At one time, Harley-Davidson had a huge distribution problem, Fink said, because many of the dealerships were run by mob members or members of biker gangs and people were afraid to go into them. By creating higher standards for dealers and changing its distribution plans, Harley-Davidson was grew domestically, as well as internationally.

His advice to graduating companies Thursday was to first go for the easier foreign countries for distribution and then on to the harder ones.

Doug Biggs, vice president of sales and marketing at Gilman Precision in Grafton, said his company greatly benefited from ExporTech in creating a plan to distribute its goods in Australia, Singapore and now Canada.

“Keep your nose to the grindstone. There will be days you hate to deal with it,” he said. “There are days I hate to deal with it.”

But the benefits can be huge.

Biggs said Gilman Precision has had 1,000 percent growth in exports to Australia and in the high hundreds percent increase to Singapore. Gilman Precision recently expanded distribution into Canada, and Briggs said they have given more quotes in two months than they did in two years combined.

“You are going to grow your business. You’re going to be a lot more successful and help the state,” he said.

Rick Kettler, president and chief operating officer for Wagner Company in Milwaukee, said it’s advantageous to be flexible. He said his company had intended to export to Germany, but Germans are crazy about their own made products. But, then Wagner Company was introduced to a South African distributor through a German company.

“The devil’s in the details,” he said. “Get terms and conditions right because if you don’t it’s murderous.”

Kettler also said it’s important to be agile and ready to move on, such as if a country becomes too tumultuous to continue to doing business there. While it feels devastating, Kettler said it’s comparable to losing a major client and figuring out a way to recover.

Biggs said it’s also a good idea to have at least one employee who flips his or her hours regularly to handle the needs of clients in other time zones.

While the graduating ExporTech companies are leaving with a plan, Biggs said a company needs to determine whether it should be in the “fast lane” or “slow lane” depending on its circumstances.

Email: kmichalets@conleynet.com