By Kirsten Adshead | Wisconsin Reporter
BELOIT — Tom Person knows first-hand how a little bit of knowledge can help a small business grow.
Person is the production manager for Serola Biomechanics, a Loves Park, Ill.-based company that makes orthopedic devices.
The company is in the middle of an expansion plan and exports to 40 countries — aided by help from the Northern Illinois Trade Initiative, a pilot program in Illinois aimed at giving business owners the information and tools they need to export their products.
Company founder Rick Serola "had the idea. He said, ‘I want to expand.' He knew what direction he wanted to take,” Person said.
“They were the ones that said, ‘Here’s how to do it. Here’s the steps you need to take, Step 1, Step 2, Step 3. This is what we recommend you to do. You know your business better than we do, but we can at least point you in the correct direction of how to take steps, who to talk to, the contacts to make,’” Person said. “That really helped him a lot."
About three dozen people, mostly entrepreneurs, came to Beloit Wednesday to determine if their businesses could benefit from a similar assist.
The International Export Seminar featured speakers from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Small Business Administration and the Export-Import Bank of the United States giving an overview of how to get started exporting, how to determine whether to expand internationally, and how to learn what loan programs are available to aid the process.
The SBA’s Export Express program, for instance, will finance participation in a foreign trade show or will provide revolving lines of credit for up to seven years.
The U.S. Commercial Service, a division of the Commerce Department, helps companies determine if there is an international market for their products and, if so, where.
“China might be a good market, but do you really want to go there, especially if you have to go back a few times a year?” asked Jerald Veit, a senior international trade specialist with the service.
A common theme throughout the afternoon: With unemployment in the United States hovering at about 9 percent — nearly 8 percent in Wisconsin — and economies worldwide struggling, small businesses need to consider expanding internationally in order to survive.
Exports have been a bright spot in what has been a gray Wisconsin economy.
In 2010, the Badger State booked $19.79 billion in foreign trade, up 18.3 percent from 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Wisconsin's total represent about 1.5 percent of total U.S. exports.
U.S. Reps. Donald Manzullo, a Republican who represents northern Illinois, and Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat who represents part of southern Wisconsin, led the summit.
“I think oftentimes small businesses question whether they can export their products,” Baldwin said. “And when they get a little bit of information, they find that it’s not as foreboding and confusing as it might first appear. And that’s why we have seminars like this.”