By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
Years ago a friend invited me to spend a weekend at his cabin in the north woods of Minnesota. Northern Minnesota is stunningly beautiful — peace and serenity abound along with bears, moose and loons. The further we traveled from the Minneapolis area, the sparser the population became. Towns made the dramatic shift from suburbs stretching far north of the city to mere outposts among the lakes and woods. Every so often, we would pass a Mom-and-Pop general store that would usually contain an eclectic assortment of inexpensive items targeted towards the occasional traveler passing through. According to my friend, a highly successful businessman who owned an investment firm, the stores would come and go, frequently being purchased by people from Chicago or cities in the northeast hoping to find a quieter life in the wilderness. Unfortunately, the stores were rarely successful and frequently went out of business, closing up for a few days or weeks before the next urbanite-turned-adventurer buyer came along to reopen them. My friend knew why they failed.
“Don’t buy a store and sell chewing gum,” he said.
That was the problem -- generally underfunded and run by people who really didn’t understand the local population (such as it was), the stores sold an odd assortment of candy bars and chewing gum. You have to sell A LOT of chewing gum to make the mortgage payments.
Last week, I attended a conference on exports held by Allan Patch, Director of Export Assistance at the U.S. Department of Commerce. The attendees were almost exclusively small business people, either already exporting products or hoping to do so. There are government programs designed to clear the road and make it easier to export American products and services, and the people at the conference wanted to learn more. These days, I think they’ll even name a federal building after you if you start exporting (just kidding about that one).
As the conversation turned to the challenges and barriers to exporting products to countries such as China and Korea, my mind began to wander. As one man asked question after question, I grew curious as to what he did at home. Did he talk to his wife about exports? Did he tell his kids about adventures in exporting or export fairy tales? Did he make crude export jokes with his buddies? The man was so serious, so focused that it seemed as though there was nothing in his life EXCEPT for exports.
But then I realized that this man was focused on his business. And, in being so, he was a shining example of not only what makes America great, but also what will make us even better in the future.
The United States remains the world’s largest manufacturer by a large margin. Yes, American companies have ceded the low margin stuff like clothes and shoes to countries with much cheaper labor, but what we do continue to make is the good stuff — and the expensive stuff. We make things that have zero tolerance for failure because the world trusts us to do so. Increasingly over the past few years, we’ve again begun to make some little stuff, too. Companies are discovering that the savings from cheap labor don’t add up to actual savings due to inconsistent and questionable quality from the “cheap” countries.
Florida’s unemployment rate is still hovering around 12 percent and there is absolutely no reason for that. At this export conference held in the Midwest, a few dozen people walked through snow and subzero temperatures to attend. Exports out of this area are booming. All anyone has to do is think of something…anything…and bam! You have a business and a job — and that is exactly what people have done in this prosperous, northern state. From my perspective, however, it is much better running a business looking out at palm trees rather than icicles.
Florida is a funny place. On one hand, it is frequently the butt of jokes as the weird news capitol of the nation. On the other hand, the entire world envies us at least six months out of the year. Deep down in their hearts, almost everyone—from Iowa to Indonesia—wishes they could live in the Sunshine State. We are lucky enough to do just that. There has to be a way to export some of what is Florida to those who can only dream of Florida. No, I’m not talking about the sand in the little bottle things from tourist stores. That would be selling chewing gum. We have to think bigger. Much bigger. Of course, if we could find a way to export the winter weather to the frozen north, we would be zillionaires, but that would be killing Florida’s golden goose.
There are no icicles dripping down from the roof at Ruskin’s South Shore Corporate Park, but there are plenty of palm trees. With easy access to major highways, one of the nation’s busiest seaports, and three international airports, the new development is uniquely positioned to serve as a base for business in paradise. Additionally, the Ruskin campus of Hillsborough Community College is just down the street providing an educated workforce. It was not designed as an exclusive enclave for major corporations, but rather for those with ideas, dreams, and the motivation to build a business.
While in theory, chewing gum and small bottles of beach sand could be exported, the office park is better suited to successful ideas such those by Evertek Computer Corporation of San Diego. Evertek, a small business specializing in refurbished computer parts, discovered that much of the world does not need the latest and greatest in technology, instead they just wanted cheap, working computers. Suddenly Evertek, with assistance from a Department of Commerce buyer-finder service and a multi-lingual sales staff of just three people, became an American exporter of used and refurbished computer parts. They built a presence with their website and went after a hole in the global market that had been ignored by larger businesses.
There are more holes in the market; the opportunities are limited only by the imagination. The solution to Florida’s unemployment problem is not in government alone or in the promises of politicians, but rather in individuals with dreams and the motivation to make those dreams reality — all the while leveraging the helping hand that government offers.
I left that conference imagining new businesses and jobs in the South Shore Office Park, a place that, to me, at least, is far more inspiring than the subzero temperatures of the north. I wondered what could be made tangible from dreams and what could be sold or exported to fill needs currently unmet. I’m still wondering, but I do know there is something out there—a lot of something, actually. More than anything else, the small business people who attended that conference showed me that the phrase, “Let’s get to work”, is more than just a campaign slogan. Somewhere out there, be it in Sun City Center or Bogota, Colombia, are unfilled needs and a market to be tapped. That is the solution to high unemployment. Let’s get to work alright — let’s make our own jobs.
For information about the National Export Initiative from the U.S. Department of Commerce, visit www.export.gov/nei