BRUSSELS, Belgium -- From a suite of offices in the leafy suburbs of Brussels, four Belgians, a German, a Scot and a Dutch woman are selling Maryland across Eu rope and beyond.
The seven-member team works for Maryland Center Europe, an arm of the state's Department of Economic and Employment Development (DEED). The office searches for foreign companies invest in Maryland and helps state companies export and sell products abroad.
Maryland Center Europe is often the first port of call for 350 to 400 Maryland companies interested in doing business overseas.
"In Maryland, there are 100 to 150 hard-core exporters," Harry Gschwindt de Gyor, a Belgian who is the center's managing director. "The fact of life is that the same company names turn up in Taiwan or Japan as do in Europe. They are the state's foreign traders."
Prominent among them are Westinghouse Electric Corp., Black & Decker Corp. and Martin Marietta Corp. But dozens of smaller companies are seeking opportunities abroad as exports have become one of the fastest-growing segments of Maryland's economy.
Last year, the value of Maryland's exports rose 22 percent, far outpacing the 6 percent increase nationwide.
The Brussels office was set up in 1978 and costs the state $800,000 a year. The state has similar offices in Hong Kong and Taipai, Taiwan, and a smaller office in Yokohama, Japan. They compete aggressively with the 20 other U.S. state offices in Brussels promoting their local interests.
Currently, DEED's Brussels office is lobbying the Belgian government on behalf of Denro Inc., a Gaithersburg company that wants to provide voice communication switching systems for the Belgian air force's new air control facility.
"They're helping to get information, talk to customers, recommend Denro and find out about the competition," said Irwin Nathanson, a vice president of Denro, which has $30 million year in sales and employs 200 people.
Seeking to boost its international business, Denro obtained a grant from DEED several years ago to attend an air show in Paris. There, company representatives met a Finnish representative who was instrumental in helping Denro secure a $5.6 million contract.
Since 1990, Denro's international activity has grown from 6 percent of its business to 30 percent, Mr. Nathanson said.
Finding businesses to invest in Maryland also is a top priority for the Europe center. The office uses a computer network to scan 1.3 million European companies each year.
Examining the type of industry, the company's size and its ability to export, the center screens out 6,000 possible candidates and comes up with a short list of 30 prospective investors.
The center's staff then meets with the candidates. It draws up a business plan for each and identifies sites in Maryland that are competitive and appropriate to their businesses.
Since 1981, the center has helped locate 100 to 150 businesses in Maryland. Before the recession, it recorded two investment deals a month, but foreign investment has slacked off considerably in Maryland since then.
There have been some sizable deals, however.
Last April, CarnaudMetalbox Enterprises Inc., a French and British decorative packaging company, opened a $15 million manufacturing plant in Harford County. The Belcamp plant employs 45 people and plans to triple its production this year, according to company spokeswoman Cindy Martin.
"On the whole, most of the investments start off small," Mr. Gschwindt de Gyor said. "However, of the 95 percent that start small, 60 to 70 percent have expanded in the first three years."
In addition, the office helped land Cellulose-Fuellstoff-Fabrik (CFF), Europe's largest commercial paper recycler, which plans to establish a U.S. headquarters and manufacturing center for the production of cellulose in Worton, just outside Chestertown. The plant is expected to employ 18 to 25 people when it opens this summer.
Delsey Luggage Inc., a French luggage maker, is another. Without a single sale in the United States, the company was persuaded to test the market in Baltimore. It shipped two 40-foot containers filled with an array of its suitcases and bags here. Subsequently, Delsey built a $10 million manufacturing plant in Denton.
Historically, the United Kingdom has been the top market for finding investors for Maryland. It accounts for about 40 percent, with Germany 30 percent and the remaining 30 percent shared among the Benelux countries -- Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg -- and France, Italy and Finland.