If you want to know what has kept the U.S. economy afloat during hard times, you have to look at exports. They've been responsible for two thirds of the nation's economic growth from 2007 to 2008, says U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab. While it is true that the dollar's recent rebound, which is likely to continue, has put a damper on exports, one important driver is not going away anytime soon: the growing demand for U.S. products in emerging markets like China and India. The problem is that this demand has cropped up so fast that many American businesses are not ready. "Most American businesses are woefully behind the rest of the world on exporting," says George Solomon, associate professor of management at George Washington University.
Export intermediaries are the small-business sector's solution to this big problem. Their basic mission is to connect domestic sellers to foreign buyers. There are two ways to do this. Export trading companies take title to goods made by domestic companies and directly sell them to buyers overseas. Export management companies have a simpler role. They don't buy the exports in question—they just find the foreign buyer. Andy Reinke of Indianapolis, who has run the export management company Foreign Targets Inc. since 1996, says that difference cuts your risk. "In export management, you share the risk with the manufacturer," he says. If something should go awry between buying the goods and exporting them—let's say the market goes belly up in the country in question—the export trading company would be stuck with the full bill for the goods it bought.
How much does it pay?
Specific wage statistics for export managers aren't available. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2007, the mean annual wage for chief executives in the wholesale trade industry was $166,870. What kind of background do you need?
Running an export management company requires considerable knowledge of international trade. Reinke explains the steps he goes through in one case: First, you have to figure out where in the world demand for the goods is highest. That requires looking at trade statistics and doing marketing research. Then you have to combine that research with knowledge of the relevant tariff rates. Next, Reinke says he contacts companies that manufacture similar products to the one he is trying to export but that are not in direct competition—for example, if you're trying to sell a sort of industrial valve, you would look at where companies that sell a different kind of valve have found buyers abroad. From there, you contact the overseas companies you have identified. Here, knowledge of a foreign language might help but is not necessary. Reinke says he knows enough French and Spanish to get by, but the countries he deals with—which include China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Jordan—are so diverse that he could never know enough languages to keep up. The fact that he deals mainly in high-tech industrial products makes it easier to find people on the other side of the bargaining who speak English, the language of technology today.
A background that is sure to make the process simpler, however, is having worked in the export field. Reinke worked at the Indiana State Department of Commerce and then did export development for a small manufacturer in South Bend. Any experience in international business would increase your likelihood of having contacts to find clients and foreign buyers.
How do you get started?
One benefit of starting in this field is that you may not find yourself with much competition. When he first started, Reinke says, "we opened up the phone book and identified the fact that no one else was doing this." But there's a challenge hidden in that benefit—you have to convince people who may be unfamiliar with export managers that your services are worthwhile. To do that, Reinke says, you need to lay out a specific timeline for clients in which you can deliver tangible results. How do you find clients? "I don't advertise myself much.... It's a tightknit community," Reinke says. He found his first clients through trade shows, which he learned about through his previous job in export development.