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LOOKING OVERSEAS AND TO THE INTERNET TO BOLSTER SALES

It took a while, but most Niagara Frontier exporters have recovered from the "Asian flu," the financial crisis that gripped countries like South Korea, Thailand and Malaysia in late 1997 and 1998.

Trade experts are predicting that 2000 will be a relatively good year for local exporters, and they're optimistic that the explosive growth of e-commerce will fuel long-term growth in export sales.

"Many of us were hit hard by the Asian flu a couple years ago, but that certainly has stabilized now," said Robert L. Stevenson, president of Eastman Machine Co. of Buffalo. "Our company is expecting an upswing in exporting activity, and I'm hearing the same thing from many other local companies."

Stevenson should know. He serves as chairman of the Niagara International Trade Council, a coalition that represents many of the region's largest exporters. His company makes fabric-cutting machines, and Stevenson estimates that nearly half of all Eastman's business in 2000 will be generated by clients in foreign countries.

Export sales figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce can be viewed in both a positive and negative light, depending on the time frame that's measured. Exports in the Buffalo metropolitan area dropped by nearly 17 percent in 1998, the most recent year in which data is available. The region (which includes Niagara Falls) ranked 55th nationally among 253 metropolitan areas, posting more than $2.2 billion in export sales, down nearly $445 million from the previous year.

But James C. Mariano, director of the Buffalo Export Assistance Center -- an entity that operates under the Department of Commerce -- said if one measures the region's trade prowess by a longer yardstick, the picture brightens.

"If you look at figures over five years -- from 1993 to 1998 -- you'll see that total exports from the Buffalo area increased by 95.8 percent," said Mariano. "That's more than double the national average of 45 percent."

Mariano is optimistic that data that has yet to be compiled for 1999 will reflect a further increase in export sales by local companies, and he predicted that this year's trade activity could be strong, especially if the U.S. dollar levels off.

"A strong dollar is great for travelers, but it can be a killer for exporters," said Mariano. "A strong dollar means that the cost of buying U.S. products is more expensive. It can make it more difficult to compete with imports."

Stevenson agreed that the next 12 months should be a strong year for many local exporters, even though the financial condition of some South American countries remains "shaky."

Experts said the North American Free Trade Agreement was a contributing factor to the favorable five-year snapshot. Statewide, exports to NAFTA partners increased more than 46 percent since the trade agreement was implemented in early 1994.

But Stevenson also believes that the smorgasbord of assistance programs that are available to businesses was a major reason why local exporting activity increased by more than $1 billion since 1993.

Empire State Development Corp., New York's economic development arm, has been especially aggressive in helping to forge trade alliances. The state operates trade offices in 11 regions around the world, including Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Israel, Argentina and South Africa. State officials have also partnered with major utilities in an effort to open trade doors and offer other forms of assistance to businesses that are eyeing foreign markets.

Niagara Mohawk operates what it describes as a comprehensive, hands-on training program that helped state businesses to penetrate international markets. The ExportNY program offers corporate training, networking and research support.

The Erie County Industrial Development Agency provided 12 companies with nearly $7 million in export working capital last year. It also provided insurance to companies that racked up $140 million in export sales.

Other efforts are also under way to convince local companies to think globally, including the so-called Atlantic Corridor Development Plan. The effort is based on the premise that Ireland could be a powerful springboard for helping small and medium-sized companies to find new markets for goods and services.

While some have privately questioned the methods and overall effectiveness of the initiative, organizers insist the effort is building a proverbial bridge across the Atlantic that links the Niagara Frontier with one of Europe's fastest-growing economies.

The Niagara International Trade Council offers a number of export assistance programs to businesses. One of its newest initiatives was launched last fall and is called the Trade Alliance Program. Executive Director Holly Donaldson said the Council also provides Internet research to member companies four times a year.

"It gives them a much better understanding of their competitors, and this is very important for companies that are seeking to grow," she said.

Donaldson added that the continued surge in Internet commerce should help to fuel export sales in Western New York, a region that touches Canada and is viewed by many exporters as an ideal location from a logistical standpoint.

Stevenson believes that Buffalo's best hope for growing new jobs and investment lies in catering to foreign markets.

"I look at exporting as the engine that will drive our regional economy," he said. "We have to recognize that we're not going to make money by selling to ourselves."

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