Q&A with NMMA senior export development director Julie Balzano

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Balzano (front, at right) leads NMMA officials and other representatives of the U.S. industry on a 2013 boat tour off Colombia’s San Andrés Island. The goal was to explore business opportunities for U.S. companies in the Latin American nation’s marine market.

Balzano (front, at right) leads NMMA officials and other representatives of the U.S. industry on a 2013 boat tour off Colombia’s San Andrés Island. The goal was to explore business opportunities for U.S. companies in the Latin American nation’s marine market.

Julie Balzano, senior export development director for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, says she was at the right place at the right time to land the job she now holds.

Before she took the NMMA job she was director of the Mexico and marine industry sector for Enterprise Florida Inc. — the state’s economic development organization. In that role she was tasked with supporting Florida’s marine industry. Earlier in her career she spent just over 15 years in international trade development.

“While I boated a bit during my childhood summers on the east end of Long Island, my knowledge of the industry was limited, at best,” Balzano says. “Fortunately, the late and beloved Frank Herhold, executive director of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, took me under his wing and gave me a solid foundation upon which to build my knowledge of the industry.”

Years later, she met Cathy Rick-Joule and expressed an interest in working with the NMMA. “Coincidentally and unbeknownst to me, the NMMA was simultaneously formalizing a strategic partnership with the U.S. Department of Commerce, the federal agency that promotes U.S. exports, and was looking for someone to spearhead the association’s increased emphasis on export development,” Balzano says.

The job comes with travel, obviously, which can be good and bad. Balzano loves seeing new parts of the world, but spends much of her time in economic development meetings. The travel bug bit her when she went to Costa Rica as part of the Peace Corps — “a life-altering experience,” she says.

Previously she worked at a New York ad agency, fulfilling a lifelong dream she quickly realized wasn’t for her. So she took a chance on the Peace Corps and says it was the best decision she ever made.

She lives in Florida with her 18-year-old daughter Adriana, and was preparing to take Adriana to Colombia on vacation when we spoke to her. Her 21-year-old son Alex is a junior at the University of Florida; Adriana will start at Florida International University in the fall.

As the issues around trade and exports become more politically charged, Balzano has worked to educate the industry about exactly what trade agreements and Cuba relations might mean to them. Though it has been an uphill battle at times, she has made strides.

She received the Golden Compass Award in 2015 at the U.S. Superyacht Association’s annual meeting. The award is presented annually for excellence and leadership and for leading the superyacht industry in a positive direction.

We sat down with Balzano to ask about emerging markets, trade and exports, and opportunities for the boating industry.

Q: Can you talk about getting to know this industry and Frank Herhold’s role in that?

Julie Balzano

A: I can tell you that Frank truly was my mentor. When I started in this industry in my prior job, I was an outsider. The messaging that ‘I’m here from government and here to help’ really didn’t resonate. Frank took the time to walk the docks at the Fort Lauderdale boat show and introduce me to so many industry stakeholders. He was always genuinely interested in what I was trying to do. He was an absolutely amazing person because he didn’t do this for just me. He did it for everyone.

I think Frank was happy to see that the state of Florida was taking an interest in the industry. He really was going out of his way to make sure that I, as a representative of Enterprise Florida, was given an opportunity to understand the industry. In order to support the industry you have to understand the industry. That was part of his job and his mission, but he really went above and beyond.

Q: Can you talk about exports and the global community?

A: We live in a global economy, and the U.S. is considered the leader in recreational marine products. U.S. manufacturers benefit tremendously from working with our overseas counterparts through an exchange of ideas, cultures, collaboration and innovation. At year-end 2016 U.S. marine manufacturers exported $1.6 billion worldwide. Given the global recognition of U.S.-made boats and marine products, there’s significant opportunity for NMMA members to work with the U.S. to grow their business overseas and create new revenue streams. That’s why the NMMA is constantly exploring new markets and building relationships with businesses and organizations around the globe. We’re not only bringing U.S. builders to the global marketplace, but we’re bringing the global marketplace to U.S. builders.

Q: I believe the Department of Commerce has been trying to assist the industry in increasing exports. Can you talk about this?

A: NMMA has been a strategic partner with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration for just over five years now. They are an important partner, providing the U.S. with market research, export tools and global support, among other things.

We work closely with their marine tech team. Whether it’s establishing connections in a market that’s not been heavily explored or identifying the best path forward for U.S. businesses, the Department of Commerce helps the U.S. navigate the global marketplace.

We also work closely with a growing number of state economic development organizations, or EDOs, who fill a similar role but at a statewide level. I encourage every marine company to reach out to their respective state EDO and consider them another export resource.

Q: What are some emerging markets and/or growth opportunities for the U.S. boating industry? What are some of the challenges in each of those markets?

A: Depending on a company’s product offerings and services, some of the less competitive markets might be a better choice if they typically compete more on price than on product attributes. But even though competition is often less in emerging markets, it’s important to emphasize that risk is usually greater with a lack of transparency, unexpected changes to standards and regulations and sometimes government instability. The sales life cycle can take longer, too, so we recommend that companies target a mix of established and emerging markets.

We work on behalf of our members to identify emerging and underserved markets, such as Colombia and Portugal. But we choose these emerging markets with great care. NMMA looks at each opportunity very holistically, working with our members to provide strategic guidance and counsel so they can determine which market makes the most sense for their business.

Q: Can you talk about some of the specific work you do to help companies branch out to other countries? What should companies know before embarking on these types of projects?

A: One of our primary goals is to work closely with our members to educate them on the benefits of exporting. While the U.S. market certainly provides significant opportunity — especially at this time — we encourage their growth in other countries to ensure they reduce their dependence on the U.S. market and spread their risk during times when the U.S. economy may not be as stable or growing.

Whether a company is new to export or experienced, NMMA can help. Oftentimes I’ll work with a member who is just beginning to formulate their export plan. I’ll walk them through some of the initial steps as they decide which markets to pursue and what resources are available to assist them.

Or when approached by an experienced member with a specific export-related challenge, I’ll work to connect them to the resource that can help solve their issue — this can be product held up in customs somewhere due to a lapse in certification or the need for a certificate of origin for certain destinations.

Balzano welcomes visitors to the USA Pavilion at the Rio de Janeiro International Boat Show. The NMMA has run the pavilion since 2013.

Balzano welcomes visitors to the USA Pavilion at the Rio de Janeiro International Boat Show. The NMMA has run the pavilion since 2013.

Much of our time and resources also go into supporting market entry for our members, including projects like the U.S.A Pavilion at METS and Colombia, leading fact-finding missions to different markets to determine export opportunities for U.S. manufacturers — such as the one being promoted now to Portugal and Spain. We take on much of the logistical burden.

The greatest challenges I am seeing are the strength of the U.S. dollar, the robust domestic economy, uncertainty regarding changes to existing trade policies and a shortage of qualified workers. Collectively they create an enticing environment for companies to invest all of their efforts and resources here at home while neglecting their international efforts.

It’s my goal to ensure our members understand that creating a solid base of international clients, dealers and distributors takes time and an investment of resources, and the ideal opportunity to build this network isn’t when domestic sales have slowed and desperation sets in, but rather when sales are solid and resources are ample.

Q: Yes, I meant to ask you about that fact-finding mission to Portugal and Spain. Can you explain what these missions set out to accomplish?

A: We started doing fact-finding missions when travel restrictions to Cuba were lifted. What these types of missions allow us to do is introduce members to markets that don’t have an obvious entrance strategy.

For example, they might not have a boat show or a sophisticated dealer distribution network. They are usually emerging markets. Portugal has always been a market largely serviced by dealers and distributors in Spain. That’s why we haven’t heard much about it, but we are seeing GDP growth there.

It’s very hard to track imports to Portugal because lot of them ship into Spain.

These missions are designed to help members meet with industry contacts, stakeholders, assess what the opportunities are and streamline the market entry for them.

Q: You also mentioned Colombia, one of the most beautiful places, in my opinion. There seemed to be a nice, budding recreational industry, but one that lacked infrastructure to support a lot of growth. Can you update us there?

A: Tourism in Colombia continues to grow, and along with it the demand for boating infrastructure, primarily in Cartagena de Indias. Currently there is a moratorium on any new marina development projects in the Bay of Cartagena, but that has provided impetus for other projects — those planned on the outer limits of the city — to move forward at a quicker pace. One in particular is Serena del Mar, a master project that is essentially a new city with schools and a hospital, and it will include oceanfront housing and a marina village.

Q: How are things going in some well-established markets, such as Canada and Europe? Those areas have been somewhat challenging due to the strong dollar. Is that starting to shift?

A: Canada, Mexico and Europe are the most obvious choices for global business, and they remain so for our industry in spite of a strong U.S. dollar. In 2016 Canada was the top destination for U.S. recreational exports, with $517.6 million in export sales. Mexico was the No. 3 overall export destination, totaling $121.6 million for boats and engines.

While exports to these markets all experienced a decline immediately following the rise of the U.S. dollar, they have now turned around, with H1 2017 showing a rise. Perhaps importers halted orders initially when the dollar first strengthened, hedging that it was a temporary situation? I don’t know for sure, but it’s reasonable to assume that in some cases they may have opted to “wait out the increase” and exhaust their inventory, hoping the dollar would weaken again. Eventually, however, they have to replenish their stock.

Or perhaps the increase is reflective of a realization that they can’t replace quality products that come from the U.S. These markets have knowledgeable consumers who want U.S.-quality products. We know that the stronger the brand reputation, the less affected they’ll be by currency fluctuation.

Regardless, the strong dollar still remains somewhat of a challenge. In part — because of it — we are seeing an increase in imported product as our overseas competitors pursue the coveted U.S. customer with very competitive pricing.

Q: Can you talk about METS, and the growing involvement in that show? Are we seeing more U.S. companies participate there? Why?

A: When I’m counseling a member company on exporting, I usually suggest that METS be the international show they consider first – especially if their budget only allows for one overseas event. METS is a very consistent B2B show that continues to produce results our member exhibitors are seeking.

I’m sure the overall number of U.S. companies increases each year, but I can only speak to the participation in the U.S.A Pavilion specifically — a project the NMMA has spearheaded since the show’s inception 30 years ago. Just last year we partnered with the U.S. Superyacht Association to mount a new U.S.A Pavilion in the superyacht area of the show, which has already increased in size and the number of exhibiting companies over last year.

The U.S. Department of Commerce continues to certify the show, which serves as a “seal of approval” for U.S. companies evaluating it, and more U.S. states are participating. For the first time this year the state of Tennessee will be joining North Carolina, Florida and Washington with an onsite presence and grant support for their respective clients.

Q: Can you address free trade agreements and how they positively affect various aspects of the industry? Are there potential negative effects?

A: Without a doubt, the benefit of free trade agreements to our industry is that they ensure consistency across the board. Ninety-five percent of marine manufacturers are small businesses who lack the resources to comply with technical differences and duplicative procedures for different markets around the world.

Without the protection of free trade agreements, in terms of reduction of tariffs and technical barriers, exporting for many of these small manufacturers wouldn’t be possible. Negative effects for U.S. exporters? I don’t see any.

Q: Can you speak specifically to NAFTA, and how that agreement affects the industry? Are there places where it could be updated?

A: Free trade between the U.S., Mexico and Canada for our industry is a top priority. Any increase in tariffs in NAFTA for marine engine, boat and accessory equipment has the potential to negatively impact the industry and result in price increases for the consumer, so we are monitoring the process carefully.

On June 12 the NMMA sent comments to the U.S. trade representative’s office regarding a request for negotiating objectives to modernize the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Balzano welcomes visitors to the USA Pavilion at the Rio de Janeiro International Boat Show. The NMMA has run the pavilion since 2013.

Balzano welcomes visitors to the USA Pavilion at the Rio de Janeiro International Boat Show. The NMMA has run the pavilion since 2013.

NMMA urged the trade representative’s office to approach any renegotiations with an understanding of the key role Canada and Mexico play for U.S. marine manufacturers as two of the three top boating markets for U.S. marine products, sales and supply chain needs.

Q: How do you see the current administration affecting imports and exports?

A: It’s too soon to tell, as not a whole lot has changed thus far. We’ll have to wait and see how the current administration will address specific trade policies. We know the administration understands exports matter to the U.S. economy and that restricting imports can have unintended negative impacts on U.S. exports. We work closely with the administration to ensure our industry’s needs are understood, and we will continue to do so as trade policies are considered.

Q: Cuba — what are some opportunities for both the boating industry and the boating public? What are some challenges? Again, do you see the current administration affecting where things stand today?

A: I had the honor of leading the NMMA’s first Cuba fact-finding trip in August of 2014, shortly after President Obama initially lifted some of the travel restrictions. At that time U.S. boaters were not yet allowed to travel to Cuba, and boating activities within the country were limited and not well known to the American boating public.

However, once U.S. boaters could travel to Cuba via boat, a new boating destination opened. But with the trade embargo still in place, nothing much changed in terms of commercial opportunities, and that will remain the case until the embargo is lifted. As we’ve been doing, we will continue to monitor how things unfold with Cuba.

Q: Do you work with companies importing to the United States? How so, if you do?

A: NMMA does not typically work with companies importing into the U.S., as that isn’t necessarily an effort that benefits the majority of our membership. However, I do encourage any interested importer to reach out to their country’s own respective trade association and government export promotion agency for guidance and support.

I also suggest that they consider exhibiting in one of our domestic shows, depending on what their goals are — as they are an effective tool for connecting with the American consumer.

Q: Just because I also like to travel, what are some of the most interesting places you’ve visited?

A: Ironically, I spend more time on a plane than I do boating. The travel bug first hit me when I joined the Peace Corps back in the late ’80s, and I did a lot of off-the-beaten-path traveling to some amazing and remote places throughout Central and South America. The first time I was ever invited to go yachting was, in fact, when I was serving as a volunteer in Guancacaste, Costa Rica. I also traveled down the Amazon from Leticia, Colombia, to Manaus on a passenger ferry, sleeping each night in a hammock.

Guatemala has an amazing culture and is an amazing country; it’s not a really safe place today, and not really an emerging market for boating, but in terms of a place, the indigenous culture is so rich.

Israel is another place — I love the people, I love the food — some of the best food I’ve ever eaten was in Israel. It’s so fresh. It’s such an interesting and complex place.

And then actually, Portugal. The first time I went was last year, and I went on my own. It was such a pleasant discovery. I think it’s always overshadowed by Spain. But it has great food, is affordable and has very interesting architecture.

Europe, of course, is always a joy. Walking down the promenade in Cannes each morning to work our boat show stand was a great daily reminder of what an amazing career I have. But I hold a special place in my heart for Latin America. I love the warmth of the Latin people.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

A: It’s important to remind U.S. marine manufacturers that exporting can be good for their bottom line. Having a healthy balance between domestic and international sales can help ensure that a company remains profitable and can better navigate any unexpected economic and seasonal downturns.

Trade experts know that companies who export remain more profitable and competitive and typically pay better wages than their competitors who don’t — regardless of the performance of the U.S. market alone.

Export development is one of the great resources NMMA provides its members. We have insights and experience and relationships to guide our members through the process and introduce them to new business opportunities. The success we see our members have as a result of these efforts is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue.

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