N.C. small businesses gain foothold overseas

Maker of Bone Suckin’ Sauce proves that small businesses can grow by exporting

vbridges@newsobserver.comJanuary 14, 2013 

  • Exporting resources N.C. Department of Commerce: nccommerce.com U.S. Department of Commerce: commerce.gov Wake Tech Small Business Center: smallbusinesscenter.waketech.edu N.C. Small Business and Technology Development Center: sbtdc.org N.C. State’s Industrial Extension Services: ies.ncsu.edu N.C Passport to Export: http://bit.ly/TVHoio. United States’ top trading partners in 2011 Includes value of products and services exported to that country • 1. Canada: $6.35 billion • 2. China: $2.63 billion • 3. Mexico: $1.99 billion

— Bone Suckin’ Sauce is made in Dunn and shipped from the Farmers Market in Raleigh.

But Jean Davis, director of International Trade at the N.C. Department of Commerce, came across a small bottle of the barbecue sauce in Sweden.

“(My friend) was doing a barbecue and pulls out a thing of Bone Suckin’ Sauce, and I was like ‘That’s from North Carolina,’ ” Davis said. “She said ‘Oh, well my favorite gourmet store in downtown Stockholm sells it.’ ”

The Ford family, along with their Bone Suckin’ Sauce varieties and its extended line of products, are stars in the state exporting scene. Ford’s Gourmet Foods, distributors of the Bone Suckin’ Sauces, Wine Nuts and Fire Dancer Jalapeño Nuts, exports its products to about 65 countries.

Ford’s Gourmet Foods and its sister company, Ford’s Produce, employ about 70 people.

In 2008, Ford’s Gourmet Foods was honored as the state’s first Exporter of the Year by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“The idea is if they can do it, anybody can do it,” Davis said.

Promoting the product

Exporting creates opportunities for a business to expand and diversify its customer base, enhance sales for seasonal products and increase job opportunities and stability for its employees at home, Davis and others said.

“We have really seen during this tough economy, the companies that are not only surviving but thriving are the ones that have international sales,” Davis said. “And so now, even our littlest companies have an understanding of, ‘Boy, if I can sell these products oversees, my company is going to grow right here at home.’ ”

But for small business owners, venturing into the global market can be daunting as they face many unknowns, such as how to connect with distributors, how to exchange money and how to insure and move their products. Many companies turn to state and federal resources to help make the transition with education, grants, international connections and travel opportunities.

In North Carolina, exports peaked in 2011, with businesses exporting $27 billion worth of products and services.

A $603,000 federal grant that was initially awarded in the 2011-12 fiscal year and increased to $945,000 for the 2012-13 fiscal year has enabled the state to create its N.C. Passport to Export program, which gives small businesses access to market research, translation services for marketing materials, education opportunities and international trade shows.

“It allowed us to do things that we never have been able to do before,” Davis said.

Last fiscal year, the N.C. Passport to Export helped about 200 small businesses. This year, the state is on track to help 350 companies, about 275 of which are smaller companies, Davis said.

The program falls in line with President Barack Obama’s National Export Initiative, announced in 2010, which aims to double U.S. exports by the end of 2014.

Local resources, including the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the N.C. Department of Commerce and the Small Business and Technology Development Center, are available for small businesses starting the exporting process. Usually, these agencies will help assess a company’s needs and capacity to export.

The N.C. Department of Commerce has seven employees stationed around the world, including Canada, China and Europe, who are available to work with North Carolina businesses on connecting in those markets.

If a business isn’t ready to start exporting, education may be key, said Alex Viva, who specializes in international business development for the Small Business and Technology Development Center. Also, the U.S. Commercial Service offers services such as screening and checking the credit worthiness of foreign business clients.

Developing a brand

For Ford’s Gourmet Foods, international sales accounts for about 30 percent of sales for Bone Suckin’ Sauce and 90 percent for the Wine and Fire Dancer Nuts, said Patrick Ford, vice president of international sales and marketing for the company.

Philip Ford developed Bone Suckin’ Sauce while trying to copy the Western North Carolina barbecue sauce recipe of his mother, Virginia Ford. Family members started manufacturing the sauce in 1992.

Bone Suckin’ Sauce stepped into the international arena in 1994, when a representative of Harvey Nichols, a London-based department store chain, approached the Ford family about retailing the sauce. Sandi Ford, president of the company, and her son, Patrick Ford, credit a Wake Tech class for helping them learn about exporting.

“There’s a difference between exporting a little bit, and where we wanted to be,” Patrick Ford said. “We wanted to get a foothold and the knowledge to do that.”

The class introduced the Fords to concepts such as cargo insurance, pricing and shipping strategies.

They decided to only deal in U.S. dollars, avoid letters of credit and have distributors pick up their products in Raleigh.

In 2003, Patrick and Sandi Ford attended their first international Specialty & Fine Food Fair in London.

“We had a deal with a distributor, but he needed customers,” said Patrick Ford.

So Patrick Ford returned to England to sell the sauce, putting about 1,500 miles on a rental car in the process.

“I just canvassed the country,” Patrick Ford said. “We just exploded in England.”

The family later did another trade show in England, followed by shows in Germany and Canada.

“We have been all over the world,” said Patrick Young, whose work travels have earned him lifetime gold status with American Airlines. “It’s nice little perks that (airlines) give you, but you have got to sit in the seat a long time to get them.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917

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