U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, moderated a panel on program supports for small businesses interesting in growing through exports.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Local manufacturers looking to grow were encouraged to broaden their horizons beyond the nation's borders.
The state exports some $27 billion in merchandise annually; in the Pittsfield area alone, exports were more than $470 million in 2011, up from $410 million the year before. Pretty significant for a $5 billion economy.
"If we want to grow our econonmy, lift wages of the American people and remain competitive in this economy, we have to reach beyond our borders to sell our products," said U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, in opening the Pittsfield Export Forum on Tuesday morning at the Crowne Plaza. "The best part of the American economy last year was exports."
Neal, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, noted that some 95 percent of the world's population lives outside the United States, a population that is rapidly developing into a consumer class thanks to a growing global economy catalyzed by technology.
Some 50 million people in Brazil have been lifted into the middle class in the last decade alone, propelled by a combination of democratic elections and free markets.
American business is closing in on President Obama's goal of doubling imports in five years and creating 2 million jobs. Neal said American exported some $2.1 trillion in 2011, an increase of 33 percent over 2009, and $1.6 trillion in the first nine months of 2012.
If the United States doesn't start making inroads in the developing nations in Asia, South America and Africa, be assured, said Neal, that China will.
But while exporting offers growth, small businesses can also run into complications with financing, regulations and communications.
"Being able to do this legitemately and safely is very important because we're too small to afford a lawsuit," joked Josh Levine, president of LympheDIVAS, which manufactures fashionable compression sleeves for women suffering from lymphedema, a side-effect of breast cancer treatment.
Exporting is a small but growing part of Levine's young business, but one he doesn't want to ignore. "We are the only American company doing what we do," he said.
Levine, who moved the Berkshires about 18 months ago, was joined by representatives from more well-known Berkshire mainstays as Ray Murray Inc., General Dynamics, Interprint, Onyx Specialty Papers and SABIC on one of two panels.
An earlier panel included representatives from the U.S. Small Business Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce and the state's Office of International Trade and Investment, Export Center, Small Business Development Center Network and MassDevelopment.
Those agencies offer a plethora of help for businesses looking to export, including a "matchmaking" service through U.S. Department of Commerce, which provides research and business profiles through its offices in embassies and consulates around the world; capital funding and financial guarantees for bank loans, grant programs, counseling and strategic planning.
A lot of those programs and work in conjunction with one another, said John Joyce, of Small Business Adminstration.
"It's just amazing the products in Berkshire County that are being exported," said Ann Pieroway of the Massachusetts Export Center, referencing one manufacturer who created a pneumatic device for planting seeds that's now used in numerous applications. "Over $240 million in increased sales [in Western Mass] came from the six people at the Export Center."
Questions ranged from the need for translation services (try the University of Massachusetts) to shipping to the nation's failure to adopt the metric system (putting American business at a disadvantage in a metric world) to the need for security on some technology to what exactly is an export.
"Something as simple as an email can be considered an export," said Laurie Gallagher, chief compliance officer at SABIC's Innovative Plastics in Pittsfield.
Pieroway agreed, noting that a drawing sent by email could be an export, and depending on what it was for, would be required to be registered with the federal government.
For General Dynamics' Advanced Information Systems, the exportation of its platforms — used by the U.S. military as well as Australia and the United Kingdom — requires a lengthy process of federal vetting because of national security. But use of products is a concern for smaller business as well.
"I get emails all the time from people looking for our products," said Michael Hopsicker, president of Ray Murray, which makes parts for propane use. "I've turned away business because I don't know who they are or what they're going to use them for."
Levine said, "understanding who your partners are is the most important part of overseas sales."
That's where the U.S. Department of Commerce can help, said Melissa Branzburg, an international trade specialist with agency covering central and Western Massachusetts, in providing the research necessary to evaluate potential customers.
Small and medim businesses were encouraged to take advantage of the services available in the state to consider and advance their export opportunities.
The Berkshire Chamber of Commerce President Michael Supranowicz said the number of businesses participating in forum "showed how creative we are as a community."
"We already have people starting to think 'I need to expand my business' and for the congressman to bring in all the help he did today. ..."
Supranowicz said it was a matter of making connections with real people who have answers; it's a lot easier calling someone you've already met. And anyone who didn't get their number can contact the chamber, "and we'll connect them."
"I think it went great," he said.