By Brian E. Clark
Last year was hard on Fort Atkinson-based Digi-Star, which manufactures electronic scales for the agricultural industry.
With the U.S. economy struggling, Digi-Star sales were down 20 percent overall from 2008 and exports fell even more, said Kevin Klubertanz, the firm’s director of sales and marketing.
For the state as a whole, exports dropped a similar amount during the 2009, falling almost 19 percent from 2008, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. Shipments to Canada dropped nearly 26 percent; to South Korea, 23.4 percent and to Taiwan, 46.1 percent.
No figures are available for 2010, but business leaders say export numbers should be up significantly by the end of the year.
But Klubertanz isn’t taking anything for granted. Which is why he joined 60 other Wisconsin business people Friday morning at an International Trade Office Director’s Breakfast at the state Commerce Department in Madison.
The event was sponsored by the Madison International Trade Association, the Center for World Affairs and Global Economy, the Center for International Business Education Research and the UW-Madison Business School.
Klubertanz was especially interested in talking to Magda Volker, director of the TVZ International, the trade office that represents the Badger State in Brazil.
“Most of our sales go to countries in Europe like the Netherlands and Germany, but I’m here to find out about other opportunities in countries like Brazil,” he said. “I need to learn more about manufacturing there because they have significant import taxes.”
So Klubertanz got his session with Volker, who said 2010 and 2011 look good for commodities exports from her country. Which means that Brazilian manufacturers are looking to import machinery, equipment and other process controls.
Wisconsin executives also heard from Mexico trade expert Vince Lencioni, who said the drug-related violence in the border region of northern Mexico has had little effect on business in the rest of the country.
“Sometimes I think there are two Mexicos,” said Lencioni, who has directed Wisconsin’s Mexico City office since it was established in 1994.
Nancy Ward, who works with Wisconsin companies to find Canadian partners, said the oil and gas industries in western Canada are rebounding and looking for equipment and technology solutions that can help them deal with environmental issues.
She also said Badger State firms that specialize in the cleantech sector should be able to find export opportunities in Ontario.
And Paul Swenson, who directs the Great Lakes Governors Trade Development Office in Shanghai, said the Chinese economy is rolling again. He said the market for water and environmental technologies will be strong.
He said his office is “happy to do due diligence” on Chinese companies that Badger State thinking of doing business with to ensure they are reputable.
Lastly, he encouraged Wisconsin companies to be sure to register and protect their trademarks and intellectual property rights in China — even if they never plan to sell there — so that Chinese firms do not use them without permission or compensation.
The gathering also featured a talk by Willis Black on emerging markets in Africa.
Black, who founded WBB International in DePere, said companies that are thinking of doing business in Africa need to plan carefully and be aware of what he called the “unique challenges posed by this continent.”
Black, whose firm focuses on foreign business development and structured financing, said the Chinese are way ahead of the United States in some African countries in terms of exports.
“They are very aggressive in going after the African markets,” he said.
And he said Wisconsin exports to Africa are relatively small, with the middling $186 million in sales to approximately 15 African countries in 2009.
“It could be much larger,” noted Black.
“They need everything: ag-based expertise, infrastructure, energy alternatives, food and waste processing, manufacturing equipment and resource-processing equipment,” he said.
“However, that does not mean there is demand for all these things. You have to find what the demand is to be successful.”
Though Africa has many challenges, Black encouraged Badger State companies to get the established – albeit very carefully – in the continent.
“The Economist says that Africa is like the Asian market in the 1980s,” he said. “If you had gotten into China back then you would be strongly positioned now. It’s a similar situation with Africa.”