Suppliers Tap Overseas Markets

by Talk Business & Politics ([email protected]) 83 views 

A group of Arkansans greeted the president of Panama, fellow Razorback Ricardo Martinelli, with a hearty “Woo Pig Sooie” when he came near their booth at a recent trade expo in that nation.

The Panamanian people are very formal and were aghast at the spontaneous outburst, said Kim Hinkle, one of the business owners who traveled there in March with a delegation from the Rogers-based World Trade Center Arkansas.

“But a big smile came across his face and he made a beeline for our booth,” Hinkle said.

That was just one of the highlights of the trip for Hinkle, owner of Harvest Fresh Farm in Desha, near Batesville.

 The all-natural hydroponic herb farm grows culinary herbs and makes specialty herb-based food products. As a result of her attendance at the Expocomer trade show, the farm will be supplying products to upscale retailer Riba Smith.

With help from the WTCA, nine Arkansas-based businesses were represented at the expo, and all were “extremely successful,” said Natalia Moreno, a senior studying international business at the University of Arkansas and an intern at the WTCA.

“One company is going to start exporting all over South America,” she said.

A couple will be represented with Super 99, the biggest retailer in Panama, and some landed contracts with distributors.

Fluent in Spanish and Portuguese, Moreno went on last year’s trade mission to Brazil and organized this year’s Panama trip.

Panama’s assets for exporters include its canal and free-trade zone.

“Imagine this huge warehouse the size of Fayetteville,” Moreno said. “It’s like a small town, and it’s tax-free, but the only way to get your products there is through a distributor or representative.”

She said some companies just want to find a partner there who’ll represent them to local businesses, while others want to meet directly with retailers.

“So that’s what we do, and that’s what we did with these companies,” Moreno said. “We matched them with a distributor or someone who is already interested in their products.”


New Opportunities

One of the companies looking for a distributor in Panama is Rogers-based Ready Flow Inc., owned by Simon Robinson. Ready Flow is the largest distributor of 8-point neon card stock in the U.S., Robinson said, and makes signage for grocery retailers in its 24,000-SF plant.

Robinson, a New Zealand native recruited to play tennis for the Razorbacks from 1983 to 1987, bought the 30-year-old firm in August after a 20-year career in finance in the Dallas area. He and his wife wanted to raise their children, ages 12, 13 and 14, in Northwest Arkansas.

Ready Flow sells to about 350 distributors, he said, who in turn sell the products to about 15,000 “retail rooftops.”

The company does some business overseas. But when Robinson learned Arkansas had a world trade center, he called and talked with Herbert Morales, director of Latin American trade. He then met with Morales and center president and CEO Dan Hendrix.

“They asked me if I’d be interested in doing business in Asia or Latin America,” Robinson said.

He said he couldn’t compete on pricing in Asia, but did want to talk about Latin America because he already does a little business there.

Morales and Hendrix explained that Panama serves as an intermediary to trade in South America, he said. Because it has no tariff on U.S. goods, South American countries send buyers there for U.S. products.

Robinson took in-house salesman Kirk Lewis with him on the trade mission, where they made several “very good” contacts who do business with the government, schools and grocery stores.

Robinson’s plans to grow the company mainly entail expanding its customer base from grocery to other types of retailers, but exporting to Panama “would be a nice kind of ancillary business.”

Overseas sales currently make up about 2 percent to 3 percent of the company’s total, he said.

“But if we can get that up to 10 percent to 15 percent, that would be a good goal over, say, the next three to five years,” he said.


Export Experts

The World Trade Centers Association is a New York-based trade group with nearly 300 centers in about 100 countries. The Rogers office, an affiliate of the UA, opened in 2007.

The center’s mission is to provide international trade services to Arkansas companies, agricultural producers and entrepreneurs, and to educate students in global commerce.

The signing last October of the U.S.-Panama Free-Trade Agreement presented a good opportunity to plan a trade mission to that country, Moreno said.

And thanks to a $500,000 government incentive called the State Trade and Export Promotion grant the center received in October, it was able to help finance the trip for the Arkansas companies.

“We can help with their airfare, for example, and with the business-to-business matchmaking,” Moreno said. “That costs quite a bit of money. We also provide them with translators. We provide a pretty complete package, and we educate them beforehand.”

According to an Arkansas Economic Development Commission report titled “Arkansas Goes Global: 2010 Exports to the World,” the state ranked 39th in the nation in value of total exports in 2010, at $5.2 billion.

Between 2005 and 2010, the total volume of exports from Arkansas rose 33 percent, the report stated.

“One of the things the trade center emphasizes is education,” Moreno said. “If the company isn’t ready for export, we teach them, like how to export to Latin America, or about free-trade agreements and how they can help them, or what government incentives they can get.

“That’s one of the most important things the trade center can do, is to help companies get their product out there.”


Looking Abroad

The center’s staff research Arkansas companies that have products that might be in demand in other countries, Moreno said.

Hinkle said the center approached her about export possibilities.

“We didn’t even know Arkansas had a world trade center,” she said.

“They helped support us to go, provided our airfare and lined us up with qualified businesses for interviews, lined up a translator and provided our booth.

“Next year hopefully we’ll do Asia and Europe. That’s a goal. We’ll do that through the World Trade Center [Arkansas].”

Hinkle, who employs between five and 12 people depending on the season, said she decided to look abroad for new markets because other countries are more familiar with using herbs.

“Americans are just now waking up to the benefits of herbs and cooking with herbs,” she said.

Hinkle also is working to find a distributor in Panama.

The biggest challenge she’s found to doing business in Panama is the language barrier, because she doesn’t speak Spanish.

“Email’s not bad because you have Google Translate, but talking on the phone is harder,” she said.

Language won’t be an issue on her next venture outside the U.S. She and her husband, Stan Hinkle, who’s the company’s chief operating officer, plan to visit Canada this fall with help from the Southern U.S. Trade Association.

Next year, the Hinkles plan to take their products to Asia and Europe through the WTCA.

Hinkle said she’s found the U.S. government has many resources for small businesses like hers who are looking to export their products.

“There’s a lot of help out there if people would just reach out and find it,” she said.