With his company handling regular shipments of heavy machinery going to China and clothes and toys coming from China, Richard T. Higgins, director of marketing for the global logistics company John S. Connor Inc., started to believe someone needed to locate in China.
His bosses at Connor, headquartered in Glen Burnie, agreed. The company opened an office in Shanghai last week with one staffer to handle customers and drum up more business that could make its way east to Baltimore.
The company was able to move quickly by setting up shop in offices run by Maryland's economic development agency. The agency recently opened in a second Chinese city, bringing to 11 the total foreign offices aimed at helping the state's businesses tap vast and growing overseas markets.
State officials said the effort has paid off with a record $7.1 billion in Maryland goods exported last year. And while several other countries are bigger trading partners with Maryland, state and business officials say China remains the golden frontier.
"China is our biggest area of concentration," said Higgins of Connor, which helps shippers get their products onto cargo vessels, through customs and to their destinations. "All you have to do is go there once and you see that business opportunities are around every corner. It's astounding the amount of cargo that moves from China and also to China."
Despite Maryland's presence in China for a decade, longer than in any other country, China ranked as only the eighth-largest export market for Maryland last year, accounting for $284 million of the total $7.1 billion exported.
That was well behind such countries as Canada and Egypt, which was the top growth market, largely because of an increase in aviation and aerospace equipment. Other promising markets were Japan, Belgium, the Britain, Mexico, Germany, Algeria and the Netherlands.
Historically, the West Coast is a more popular landing point for Chinese goods shipped to the United States. But officials at the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development say China's economy is growing and becoming more welcoming of Western goods and services.
Nancy Wallace, director of the department's Office of International Trade, which oversees the foreign locations, said demand has increased from local companies needing help navigating the complexities of language, culture and the law, particularly in Asian countries. The state has offices in Shanghai and Beijing, China; Taipei, Taiwan; and Singapore.
Other offices are in London; Paris; Mexico City and Monterrey, Mexico; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Santiago, Chili. The newest office opened in December in India.
"The demand for our export-assistance programs continues to grow," Wallace said. "By helping to identify export-friendly markets, and minimizing the cost and risk of market entry, our office can flatten just about any company's export learning curve."
That curve can be especially steep for Westerners in Asia, said Ning Shao, the state's chief representative in China, who was in Baltimore yesterday for an annual meeting with the other state representatives abroad.
He has helped such corporate giants as Northrop Grumman Corp., Perdue Farms Inc., Black & Decker Corp., Marriott Corp. and RTKL Associates Inc., as well as a host of small companies. He typically aids 90 to 100 Maryland companies a year, some of which operate out of Maryland Center China.
Aris Melissaratos, the state's secretary of business and economic development, said China can help boost exports from Maryland, which ranks 33rd among all states.
Melissaratos wants Maryland trade to double or triple over time. As progress, he noted that a China Shipping Group vessel would make its first direct port call on Baltimore tomorrow.
Baltimore is at a disadvantage for Asian imports, generally, because ships must sail past not only West Coast ports but also some East Coast ports, such as Norfolk, Va., and New York.
Port officials say they are making a new push for containers from Asia by pitching Baltimore as less congested than California's ports. Baltimore also recently bought cranes that more efficiently stack containers, making more room on the dock.