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OP-ED: Going Global with Kentucky Exports

U.S. Commercial Service opens Ohio Valley Rural Export Center in Louisville

Oscarware’s 12” Porcelain Coated Wok Topper is among the many products the Dudley Family introduced and now export from Bonnieville, Ky.

LOUISVILLE — Rural companies looking to grow their business now have another incentive to pursue exports. The U.S. Commercial Service has enhanced its assistance by recently opening the Ohio Valley Rural Export Center in Louisville, which serves six states. This means that rural exporters can more easily get one-on-one help to compete and succeed globally.

Mona Musa

Guest column by Mona Musa, Acting Director, U.S. Commercial Service Louisville

Rural businesses have great export potential. Take for example, Debra Dudley, president and owner of Oscarware Inc., who was looking to expand sales of her company’s grill toppers used for outdoor cooking. Her company was succeeding in the domestic market, and she thought exporting might be worth a shot. Oscarware, like many other small companies, was ready for the next step and tapped the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Commercial Service in Louisville for export assistance.

After helping Debra identify potential markets, she was recruited to participate in a Commonwealth of Kentucky trade mission to the United Kingdom, which led to her first export sale in 2015. A long-term client of our local office, Debra’s family-owned company in rural Bonnieville has since leveraged numerous federal services and programs, along with a State Trade Expansion Program (STEP) grant. As a result, Oscarware has seen a large increase in profits from greatly expanded sales to England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland with more to follow. Now selling to other global markets as well, exports account for 5% of its total sales, enabling the company to grow its staff to 25 employees.

Oscarware is among the many Bluegrass State businesses boosting their bottom line and competitiveness by selling internationally. Exports are an important contributor to Kentucky’s economic growth and prosperity and support tens of thousands of good-paying jobs. In 2023, Kentucky merchandise exports reached a record $40.2. billion, a nearly 22% increase from 2019 with exports to top markets such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico, France, and China. In 2021, small and medium-sized businesses accounted for 80% of Kentucky exporters.

Also, consider this: 95% of the world’s consumers live outside the United States. If your business isn’t exporting, you’re missing out on potential growth opportunities. And if you’ve encountered success here in the United States — one of the world’s most competitive markets — you’re likely already a great candidate for expanding internationally.

While the benefits of exporting are clear, many entrepreneurs have yet to pursue exporting. Often, it’s because they believe exporting sounds too burdensome, their business is too small, or they may not be aware of available federal and other export resources. In addition, more than half of all exporters only sell to 1 or 2 markets, thus limiting their full export potential.

This “export gap” also exists among rural-based businesses that are typically located great distances from information, contacts, gateways, and services that facilitate export success. Moreover, these companies often lack access to the same resources and trade ecosystem as companies in larger, metropolitan areas.  For example, they have frequently identified the lack of timely, detailed, industry-specific market research to find opportunities in foreign markets. As a result, they are less likely to export.   

The recent opening of the Ohio Valley Rural Export Center in Louisville by the International Trade Administration’s U.S. Commercial Service responds to and addresses the extra challenges faced by rural companies. The strategic hub services Kentucky’s 120 counties along with the states of Indiana, Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It is led by a newly hired trade specialist operating out of our U.S. Commercial Service office in Louisville.

Leveraging the latest data and the global U.S. Commercial Service network of more than 100 locations across the U.S. and on-the-ground trade experts in more than 80 markets worldwide, the Center’s virtual services will empower rural exporters and flatten the learning curve by:

  • Reducing the cost and complexity of growing international sales.
  • Connecting rural exporters to global opportunities.
  • Helping them find the best international markets.
  • Identifying specific buyers in those markets who may be prospective business partners.

For example, the Center’s flagship Rural America’s Intelligence Service for Exporters (RAISE), accelerates a company’s market selection by informing the decision-making process. It generates customized market intelligence, ranks the opportunities in foreign markets, identifies the most suitable potential partners, and provides actionable recommendations to help the exporter enter new markets faster and more cost-effectively. Businesses can also benefit from the Center’s website globalization services and export training opportunities.

Louisville is the sixth of seven newly opened Rural Export Centers across the country, with the original operating in Fargo, North Dakota. Rural outreach is an integral part of ITA’s Global Diversity Export Initiative (GDEI) which focuses on increasing exporting activity among diverse businesses in traditionally underserved communities all across the United States.

The Center’s opening coincides with other investments in the region. Last year, President Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell visited Kentucky to promote the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law – a historic investment in America and our people – that continues to grow the economy from the bottom up and middle out. The $2.2 billion allocated to transportation-related infrastructure will reap numerous benefits for the Commonwealth’s economy and for small and medium-sized businesses as well, including a more resilient supply chain and expanded broadband access and connectivity.

We encourage companies of all types to take advantage of our year-round export assistance, and it all starts with having a solid export plan. Our trade experts can provide a range of customized services such as export counseling, market intelligence, international partner searches, trade show support, and more—with many services fully available virtually.

I’ve personally seen the vitality of the small business community in Kentucky and look forward to seeing their growth with the help of our local U.S. Commercial Service offices in Louisville and Lexington.

Mona Musa is the Acting Director of the U.S. Commercial Service offices in Louisville.

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