During the past year, I’ve spoken with numerous recreational boating companies that are turning away from exporting because of a combination of factors: Their domestic business is absorbing 100 percent of their production output; the ongoing trade war has deterred them; or the strong U.S. dollar has made their products less internationally cost-competitive.
Regardless of the reasons, these discussions take me back to 2009, when, in my prior role as a senior trade specialist with Enterprise Florida — the state’s economic development organization — we were faced with navigating the global financial crisis. Companies had idle factories as their domestic orders dried up overnight. They were desperate to keep their staff employed and businesses afloat. Many of them called us, in the international trade division, to drum up new market segments overseas.
We found ourselves explaining that there was no magic wand for building international sales overnight. Only thoughtful strategic planning, and long-term commitment of resources and time, would work. What’s more, the time to begin building that strategy had been during solid domestic times, not during volatile ones. This experience is one of the reasons I find myself so passionate about helping companies build their export strategies in economies like today’s.
According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, 95 percent of the world’s potential consumers are outside the United States. As an industry that touts 95 percent of boats sold in the United States, as built by U.S. manufacturers, we’ve created a strong domestic reputation and demand for American-made recreational marine products — a position that lends itself to tremendous opportunity for international sales as global consumers seek our quality products.
In fact, in Florida, international trade supports more than 2.5 million jobs, making it one of the largest and most vital sectors of the state’s economy. And not surprisingly, since Florida is a top state for recreational-boat manufacturing, the marine industry is one of Enterprise Florida’s key international target sectors. Manny Mencia, senior vice president of international development for Enterprise Florida, recently said that “international engagement is a vital strategy to Florida companies that want to expand sales and guard against domestic downturns.”
A number of export success stories provide valuable insight. For instance, Bob’s Machine Shop, a family-owned business in Tampa, Fla., established itself worldwide nearly 15 years ago with its export strategy. Today, approximately 20 percent of its sales are from exports.
More recently, SeaDek Marine Products, which began its export strategy in 2014, has navigated a number of international complexities to build its global business. In addition to reaching 10 percent of annual sales from overseas markets, SeaDek has expanded its global brand recognition, which in turn creates a favorable position for the company to select from the large pool of fabricators.
NauticStar Boats, based in Amory, Miss., is a new-to-export company. Right after its acquisition in late 2018 by MasterCraft, NauticStar recognized that it had to expand its global footprint. Hiring a new international sales director to lead the effort, NauticStar set a goal to grow its international dealer network. In just less than a year, the company has sold boats to Australia and Mexico, two of our industry’s top export markets.
This is a mind-set that HydroHoist Boat Lifts, based in Claremore, Okla., also adopted when it began exporting in 1997. By strategically targeting counter-seasonal markets, including Western Europe and Australia, HydroHoist built a healthy balance between domestic and international sales, helping the company mitigate slower domestic months and maximize profit margins.
All of these companies have something in common: They made a long-term commitment to and investment in developing their export strategies during solid economic times. While there is an expectation that our industry will continue to benefit from sustained domestic growth this year, there is great opportunity in building a sustainable export strategy while times are good.
Exporting is a tremendous learning experience for those who are open to its lessons, and the National Marine Manufacturers Association can help marine businesses expand into the global marketplace. We identify resources at the state and federal levels, and we navigate some of the complexities that companies might encounter. The time is now to take advantage of these opportunities. n
Julie Balzano is senior director of export and workforce development for the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue.