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As Wisconsin tops previous records for international trade, there’s still room for growth

November 28, 2023
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Exporting Wisconsin products to destinations around the globe.

Less than 10% of Wisconsin companies export, and WEDC’s export growth offerings are designed to increase that figure.

Wisconsin companies are scoring increasing success in selling their products to other countries, but there’s still room for more manufacturers to tap into new markets outside the U.S. That’s the message WEDC’s global trade and investment team takes from recent trends in Wisconsin’s international trade.

The state’s exports hit record levels in 2022, with $27.3 billion worth of products sold to buyers in 207 countries and territories around the world last year. That’s an increase of $2.5 billion (10.3%) over 2021, and $6.8 billion (33.6%) more than in 2020.

Figures for 2023 could be even higher if the current pace continues. For the first eight months, Wisconsin exports totaled $18.4 billion, up $277.8 million (1.5%) from the same period last year.

The state’s exports go beyond the products it’s traditionally known for, such as milk and cheese, cranberries, and industrial machinery. For 2023 so far (as of July 31), Wisconsin is the top state for exports in 119 product categories—including bicycles, backup generators, inboard and outboard boat engines, toilet paper, fire trucks, ginseng root, sausage, and concrete mixers. And, in a further show of strength, Wisconsin was the No. 2 exporter among the 50 states in another 127 product categories.

“Most people are surprised to learn of the many categories where we are on top,” says Chad Hoffman, WEDC international market development director. In some areas, Wisconsin’s dominance was particularly strong. For example, in 2022, 100% of the U.S. exports of milking machine components came from Wisconsin, as well as 74% of mink pelts and 67% of outboard engines.

Large corporations are among the state’s biggest exporters in terms of dollar amounts—such as Generac, with its backup power generators, and Mercury Marine, which makes boat engines. But even smaller businesses are finding their niche in export markets. “When you think of ginseng root or mink pelts, you’re looking at more rural areas of Wisconsin, as well,” says Aaron Zitzelsberger, WEDC senior director of global trade and investment.

Expanding horizons

As pandemic-induced trends—such as demand for vaccines that far outstrips supply and a global supply chain crunch—have eased, pent-up demand for a host of other types of products has been driving export growth among Wisconsin producers.

However, only 6% to 8% of Wisconsin businesses are direct exporters, and that needs to change, Zitzelsberger says.

“Exporting is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity,” he says.

Typically, Canada is the state’s largest export destination, with 31% of Wisconsin exports heading north, while Mexico ranks second, buying 16% of the state’s exports. Together, they make up nearly half of all purchases of Wisconsin exports. China, Germany, and the United Kingdom round out the top five.

Wisconsin companies that aren’t yet exporting may not have considered how much of the world’s trade is carried on outside the U.S., or they may not know that the vast majority of the world’s middle-class growth is occurring overseas.

“Often, people just don’t realize the size of the opportunity,” says Hoffman. “They think they are getting a lot from U.S. sales. But 96% of the population and 80% of the world’s purchasing power is outside the U.S. Americans may have blinders on and may not recognize the opportunities out there. Even if you can’t ship a product, you may be able to license your technology, sell services including software, or serve as an industry consultant.”

Export growth resources

For some companies, the idea of seeking sales outside the U.S. may seem daunting. That’s where WEDC can help, with a variety of programs, scholarships, grants, and experts who can provide guidance and connections.

“For us, the best thing to do is just to sit down and have a conversation with a company,” Hoffman says. “If they’re looking for help, we can absolutely help them.”

Even if they do export, companies may stick to one or two familiar markets, not realizing that their products could do well in other countries, too. “We want to help companies get to their third or fourth market,” Hoffman says.

One of the first resources to tap is ExporTech™, says Hoffman. An export education and acceleration program presented by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the UW-Stout Manufacturing Outreach Center with support from WEDC, ExporTech helps companies determine which countries might be the best match for their products and advises company leadership on how to develop strategic international growth plans. Over the course of 12 weeks, ExporTech teaches best practices regarding all aspects of exporting into foreign markets, from market identification to logistics and export finance—and also provides participants with personalized feedback and coaching.

Since 2009, nearly 350 Wisconsin manufacturers have graduated from ExporTech’ and, as a result, each of those businesses has reported an average of about $1 million in new export sales.

“WEDC can provide companies with scholarships to help pay for the program, and then provide them with a complimentary market assessment or partner  search, depending on the need,” Zitzelsberger says. Companies that complete ExporTech are also eligible for a higher funding amount if they apply for an International Market Access Grant to help them implement their export plans.

WEDC has several programs designed to open doors for companies interested in exporting. They include:

  • Wisconsin Global Navigation Network, offering advice from experienced partners in government, economic development, private industry, and academia to navigate the export process efficiently
  • Trade representatives who can help with networking, local requirements, and vetting potential partners in 116 countries around the world
  • Global Trade Ventures to international markets with customized schedules and matchmaking for participants (back in person after going virtual during the pandemic, with upcoming destinations including Mexico, China, Canada, and Germany)
  • Grants to reimburse companies for certain export-related expenses

Wisconsin also recognizes outstanding exporters through the Governor’s Export Achievement Awards. The three winners for 2023 are MacDonald & Owen Lumber Company, of West Salem; Badger Technology Group, of Port Washington; S3 AeroDefense, of Milwaukee; and the Madison-based Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin organization.

Zitzelsberger says WEDC can be a strong source of support for any company seeking to expand to international markets.

“One of the best things WEDC does is to facilitate relationships,” he says. “We may not have all the answers, but chances are, we know the people who do have the answers.”

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