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Mississippi District Export Council spreading the word

For many Mississippi businesses, especially small concerns, exporting is viewed as either too complicated and/or too risky or requires more resources than they can provide. Fear of the unknown and lack of understanding are two of the primary reasons local companies do not seek out overseas markets.

One group is looking to debunk the myths and fears of exporting and offer free advice and support to those businesses interested in gaining global customers. The Mississippi District Export Council, or Mississippi DEC, assists, enhances and promotes the export of Mississippi’s goods and services to the world. Members represent a cross-section of local public and private sector individuals willing to work in close concert with the Jackson Export Assistance Center, which is directed by Carol Moore, to better serve the needs of the export community.

Appointed by the Secretary of Commerce for their leadership abilities, knowledge of international trade, interest in export development and willingness to devote their time to council activities, members devote their time and energy to council activities and assisting local firms export their products and services.

There are 18 members of the Mississippi DEC representing businesses, financial institutions, governmental agencies, institutions of higher learning, etc. These members meet regularly to develop strategies to boost the state’s exports, and though it has been around for years now, the group is currently ramping up its efforts under the theme “You Can Do It, Too.”

Leading by example

For Jim Finley, seeing Mississippi companies that are unaware of the opportunities exporting provides is troubling. Not only is he the current chairman of the Mississippi DEC, he is a former entrepreneur whose company conducted a healthy overseas trade. Finley says too often, local businesses eschew exporting due to a lack of information and the misconception that they do not have an exportable product or service or do not have the resources in-house to market to the world.

“The biggest challenge is to get information to Mississippi companies about exporting,” says Finley, whose chairmanship runs through 2009. “‘How do I get started?’ ‘Who needs my products or services?’ ‘How do I ship it?’ ‘How do I get paid?’ These are the basic questions that companies need answers to. And my vision for the Mississippi DEC is for it to be the best source for this information.”

The Mississippi DEC, along with such members as the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) and Mississippi World Trade Center, offers this type of education through a number of events as well as on its Web site (www.mississippidec.org/). However, the group is currently pushing real-world examples as a way to promote exporting among local businesses.

“What we want to do is highlight our companies that are currently exporting,” Finley says. “We want other businesses to see who is exporting. They are not all large businesses. Some are quite small. We’re hoping the other businesses will say, ‘Hey, they’re small, too. While their product may be different in design or application, our product is generally similar to theirs. If they can do it, we can do it, too.’”

The Mississippi DEC has plenty of members to showcase. Marketing Services Inc. is a cotton marketing and trading company based in Greenville. Established by owner and president Jim Dawkins in 1978, the company joined the Mississippi DEC in the mid-1980s, and today exports cotton all over the map. With only five employees, Marketing Services easily meets the small business definition.

“The Mississippi DEC offers a gathering of people with similar objectives, and provides for the exchange of ideas,” says Dawkins. “It offers programs put on by exporters, banks, forwarding agents and customs personnel. If companies have specific questions, members are more than glad to help.”

Craig Harvey, CIO and executive president of NVision Solutions Inc., a provider of geospatial solutions located in the Stennis Space Center on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, says overcoming the fear of the unknown is the key to getting more local businesses into exporting.

“Without a doubt, allaying fears is the key,” Harvey says. “As a small company, exporting scared us. We feared the complexities.

“We became a member of the Mississippi DEC about two years ago almost by happenstance. Through a recommendation from the MDA, I met with the Export Assistance Center. I was impressed with the pool of knowledge there, and thought if I had discovered them a couple of years earlier, it sure would have saved a lot of homework — and grief.”

Today, NVision employs 29 workers and does $2 million annually, including exporting. The company now has customers in Canada and France (in June, the company entered into an international partnership to cross-market geospatial technology in the U.S. and Europe with geospatial French companies Magellium and Pole Star), and is currently exploring the Australian market.

Good times

Harvey says people often ask him why he is so big on international sales.

“I tell them when you get customers in other states, you bring in other states’ money, so your state government loves you,” he says. “But when you bring in other country’s money, the U.S. government loves you.”

More than that, Harvey says there has hardly been a better time to get into exporting. Foreign markets are becoming more stable, and, with a weakened dollar, makes U.S.-made products and services are more affordable to foreign consumers. Moreover, U.S.-made goods are gaining more and more popularity around the world. He says there has not been a better time to look at overseas markets in the past decade, maybe longer.

Finley points out that Mississippi has and continues to offer exporting advantages. These advantages include attractive, quality products and services, geography and logistics and infrastructure such as state ports, rivers, rail lines, etc.

“These are definitely good times,” Dawkins says. “Countries are hungry for raw materials and other products and services. With our controls and standards, buyers can rest assured that they are getting quality. It has been a problem in the past that a large percentage of foreign consumers couldn’t afford American products. But with improving foreign economies and a weaker dollar, more people can afford them. It’s definitely a great time to look at exporting.”<p.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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