Small business struggles to compete in global market

Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ — “Dear Solar Professional,” begins a cordial e-mail that invites Santa Cruz solar businessman Ron Swenson to an industry event in Arizona where a “Renown German solar expert Prof. Dr. Roland Schindler will introduce state-of-the-art German solar technologies to the audience with accompanying Q&A sessions.”

The solar industry event, initiated as a result of Germany’s 2002 “Renewable Energies Export Initiative,” showcases the country’s technical expertise abroad to promote trade. It is just the kind of program that U.S. business owners hope the new National Export Initiative will expand.

“The federal government has high-profile political events where a ministerial-level trade mission takes place, but I am not aware of such initiatives at the grassroots level,” said Swenson, who heads up Swenson Technology, which sells the rMeter, a solar energy monitoring system that provides real-time information about energy production and consumption via a Web browser. “Such initiatives in the USA are predominantly privately funded by industry and chamber groups and are very intermittent.”

In addition to help with promotion, exporters often struggle with high export fees and shipping delays. Just last week, Swenson Technologies was notified there would be an additional $400 tacked on to a $220 bill to ship an 8-pound solar energy meter from Santa Cruz to a company in the Galapagos Islands. The most recent bill, related to duties, customs and taxes, arrived after a four-and-a-half-week delay, which meant the Ecuadorean customer had yet to receive the product.

“We pay a pretty high premium and it’s hard to get standard procedures in place,” Swenson said. “It’s very clumsy.”

Exports make up about 55 percent of the business for Interphase Technologies, a marine sonar electronics company in Soquel that ships to about 100 countries and hopes to expand its global reach. In addition to better promotion abroad, Charles Hicks, Interphase president, would like to see government subsidized trips abroad and more product development grant money.

“Sometimes I am very envious because governments really help companies over here,” Hicks said. “Our competitors in Europe are able to go to lot more shows. The governments pay for them to go.”

Of particular concern in the agriculture community are protectionist barriers disguised as something else, said Jess Brown, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau.

“I hope it will do something about barriers that are not founded on substantial issues,” Brown said.

Access to quick money to get through customs is also important, said Teresa Thomae, Small Business Development Center director.

“There’s definitely a market for Santa Cruz lifestyles,” she said.

However, she added, “if we’re going to reduce the trade deficit, we have to increase assistance programs for exporters.”

That is increasingly a challenge, said Bernie Weiss, director of the Campbell-based Centers for International Trade Development, which provides free export support and training in the area but lost $100,000 in state funding last year and will lose the same amount in June. Of the total 15 centers in the state, eight lost all their state funding this year and will only stay open if they can secure other grants. Weiss has applied for grants for specific industries such as solar or clean technologies and specialty growers interested in exporting to China.

There are broader policy issues as well, such as energy policies that haven’t stimulated enough development in alternative energies, which are more popular abroad than here in the U.S., said Swenson. He hopes to soon perfect an inexpensive microsolar design that would efficiently fuel flashlights and other portable devices, and he is working on solar-powered transportation.

“U.S. energy policy is in the way,” Swenson said. “This is either going to be exported or imported.”

This article is published HERE


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