Md. companies need to climb the export learning curve

The Economy

April 15, 1996|By JAY HANCOCK

THE GERMANS invented Christmas trees. The Dutch invented Santa Claus. The Greeks invented shopping.

The Americans packaged them into an annual orgy of decorated, climate-controlled spending.

And the Becker Group is re-exporting them, brokering tinsel, trappings and "Santa reception modules" to malls of the world.

Maryland's exports hit a record high last year. The Becker Group helped.

The Baltimore company calls itself the biggest holiday decorator of shopping centers and casinos on the planet.

This year it will deck the malls in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, among other far-flung parts.

About 15 percent of its $22 million in yearly sales come from other countries.

"I would like to see the international business get up to about 30 percent," said John Seyffert, Becker's chief operating officer.

"We basically started in Canada about five years ago. Three years ago we started in South America.

"We had a small job in Antwerp, Belgium. This year we're expanding into Indonesia and England."

If the United States is ever to stop sending more of its money to foreigners than they send here, and if Maryland is to claim its share of growing world markets, then like Becker's must become more numerous, state officials say.

Maryland sold $6.22 billion in products to international buyers last year, a 6.4 percent increase, according to the Department of Business and Economic Development.

Most of the shipments came from big companies making sophisticated products.

Baltimore-made GM minivans alone accounted for more than $1 billion.

Other big chunks comprised machinery and chemicals.

But part of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's program to boost state exports to $9 billion by decade's end is aimed at small business.

He's trying to coordinate a web of export-information shops among universities and agencies.

The state will grant up to $5,000 in matching funds for trade-show travel and other marketing.

Privately, some export veterans are skeptical of happy talk about "trade resource centers."

What an exporter needs, they say, is contact with overseas distributors who know her product intimately and can resell it in their home countries.

What she doesn't need is a seminar disclosing the gross national product of Ecuador and the number of potential consumers in Hungary.

But small Maryland operators like Becker seem to be gradually figuring these things out.

"So many of these firms have incredible international dealings, but we don't think about that," said Penelope W. Menzies, executive director of Baltimore's World Trade Center Institute.

"It goes on every day. Your next-door neighbor is doing it."

Even so, analysts say, to hit its export potential Maryland needs to sell more than mall Christmas layouts.

Or minivans, for that matter.

Telecommunications, computers and other electronics trades are objects of high hopes.

Offshore shipments in those categories rose last year, thanks in part to the Clinton administration's easing of defense-related exports.

"We are seeing some diversification," said James Hughes, director of international trade for the state.

"Our nontransportation exports are increasing. I think it's dangerous that more than 45 percent of Maryland's exports are focused on transportation."

The true size of Maryland exports is uncertain.

The government is very good at measuring things shipped in boxes and crammed in containers and checked through Customs.

It is considerably less good at measuring services.

When Becker exports a Christmas layout, when Development Design Group exports architectural expertise, when Semmes Bowen & Semmes exports legal advice, government statisticians generally don't count them as international transactions.

"Nobody can track really good information on the export of services," said Richard Clinch, program manager for the Maryland Business Research Partnership, an economic development study group at the University of Baltimore that is partly state financed.

"Any data on exporting is heavily weighted toward manufacturing. Maryland is really ahead of the national curve in becoming a service economy, and there are undercounting of exports of services."

If services were accurately measured, Maryland's reported export growth of 6.4 percent for last year might have been closer to the national increase of 11 percent, Mr. Clinch said.

Whatever their true extent, the idea is to increase them.

All U.S. exports have been helped in recent years by the weak dollar, which renders American-made goods cheaper overseas.

The fact that the dollar has risen recently, economists say, increases the need for Marylanders to climb the export learning curve.

"We've had a low dollar for a number of years now, and hopefully it's allowed companies to get established overseas," Mr. Hughes said.

"If it doesn't rise drastically, I think the companies that have become established will be able to stay established.

"If it goes real high, we could have some problems."

Pub Date: 4/15/96

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