The Essential Ingredient of Small-Business Exporting

Neil Cotiaux Profile Shot2 by Neil Cotiaux on February 19, 2014
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Somewhere in Fiji, someone is devouring a meal made with Bone Suckin’ Sauce, a lip-smacking and award-winning product exported by Ford’s Gourmet Foods of Raleigh, N.C.

When former real estate appraiser Phil Ford re-created his mother’s recipe for barbeque sauce nearly 30 years ago, he never dreamed that today it would be sold in the South Pacific nation and 71 other countries worldwide. But with persistence — and plenty of advice from government experts — he has made exports account for up to 25 percent of the company’s gross annual sales, most of it attributable to Bone Suckin’ Sauce. Exports have allowed Ford’s Gourmet Foods to become more profitable, hire more employees, and add new products, Ford says.

The family — which includes Phil’s brother Lynn and sister-in-law Sandi — got its first taste of exporting in 1994 while attending a New York trade show. After overseas buyers approached the company’s booth, Sandi returned to Raleigh seeking help. “I did not expect it. I didn’t know how to handle it,” she recalls.

Counseled by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, Sandi and her son Patrick began taking international marketing classes at a technical college, learning about letters of credit, shipping protocols, and labeling regulations. “There were just so many terms that I wasn’t familiar with,” Sandi says. Yet the opportunity to expand the business by entering foreign markets was huge.

Getting Help

Peter Thornton, assistant director of international marketing for the NCDA&CS, who works with the Fords, notes that 95 percent of the world’s market is outside America’s borders. “The U.S. government, both on a state and federal level, wants you to export and will do everything possible to help you. Make sure you exhaust all of those resources before you start spending money,” he advises.

Free advice is available from Small Business Development Centers and SCORE. Would-be exporters can also assess their readiness by reviewing the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Export Business Planner [PDF], which includes links to free counseling and multiple sources of potential funding to cover costs associated with exporting.

Widening their knowledge, the Fords discovered the Southern United States Trade Association, which pays half of an exporter’s overseas marketing expenses and helped them stretch their dollars.

“For ag companies, we have a service that predicts future growth in all countries around the world,” Thornton adds. For non-agricultural firms, the U.S. Department of Commerce offers a similar tool through its Commercial Service Office.

While getting expert advice is essential, Thornton notes there is no single formula for exporting success. “The real factor in determining if someone can export or not has less to do with the product and has more to do with the person doing the exporting,” he believes.

So, what have the Fords learned about exporting over the past 20 years? Start with one partner, let them handle in-country regulations, and build from there, Sandi stresses. And take advantage of the help that’s available to you, Patrick adds.

Thanks to hustle, winning products, and sound advice, Ford’s Gourmet Foods continues to grow through exports. “My dad just came up with a steak seasoning,” Patrick confides. With exports, “I don’t think we’re even a fourth of the way there.”

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