R.I. businesses talk strategy to compete globally

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Kate Bramson, Journal Staff Writer

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Chris Ash of Sandstrom Carbide told U.S. Sen. Jack Reed Monday morning that shortly after he and his father redesigned their Warwick company’s website, “one day, I got a call from Siberia.”

Now, the company that specializes in machine products and components is examining whether it can create a part that the Russian businessman believes has the potential to be used in machines all over the world, Ash told Reed at a roundtable of business leaders and Bryant University officials.

As many companies are struggling to survive and build their customer base, university and political leaders are urging them to examine tapping into the global export market.

Eight businesses answered a call that Reed’s office put out for the roundtable at Bryant’s John H. Chafee Center for International Business to discuss efforts to sell more Rhode Island-made goods abroad and to help local businesses compete globally.

“I think there is a significantly untapped market for Rhode Island exports,” Reed said after the conference. “And I think what we have to do is what Bryant is doing very well, and that is connecting small- and medium-size companies with opportunities.”

The Chafee Center, the state Economic Development Corporation and the U.S. Department of Commerce all work closely with local businesses to help them increase exports.

Keith M. Yatsuhashi, an international trade specialist for the Commerce Department, said after the meeting that he helps business people who want to travel overseas and meet with potential clients by calling U.S. embassies and consulates and helping find interpreters and drivers who can help them navigate foreign places.

While hard figures show that Rhode Island exports totaled $1.5 billion for 2009, according to the World Institute for Strategic Economic Research, Yatsuhashi stressed that those figures don’t include the state’s “exported” services: tourism that attracts visitors from other countries and the education foreign students receive at local colleges and universities, paid for with currency from their countries, he says.

Reed told the business leaders that exports are key to the state’s survival, and Rhode Island must lead. Everything that’s done here will “have to be, ultimately, measured in good, well-paying jobs,” he said.

Reed listened to Ash and others talk about the issues they’re facing while trying to increase exports.

Roland Snead, president of Global Bridge International, in Providence, said his company is supporting local businesses by helping expand markets overseas. And, he had an idea to share with Reed: “As we think about importing, think about how we can import products that are 75 percent [finished], and how we can complete it here, so we can increase jobs as well.”

Cheryl Zimmerman, the CEO of FarSounder, said her company exports 60 percent of its products, and is looking to expand in Brazil, India and China. The Warwick company designs, manufactures and markets 3D sonar systems for use in defense, commercial and homeland security markets.

“For a small company from Rhode Island, to be able to sell globally, it’s very exciting,” she said.

Jeff Caruso, president of Providence-based board-game manufacturer Crisloid, said while the company traditionally sold about 7 percent internationally, he is hoping to increase that to about 25 percent.

“The biggest challenge for me is to get funding to where we need to be,” he said, a comment Reed quizzed him on, wanting to know where he was looking for funding and whether he was seeking bank loans.

Caruso said he had exhausted a lot of angles, and Reed mentioned changes that Congress made at the end of the last session to help small businesses like Crisloid get more loans.

“We’re going to have to ride hard on that and make sure it’s actually being lent,” Reed said.

Responding to Ash, Bryant President Ronald K. Machtley weighed in, “We have a basketball player from Siberia, so if you need help …”

And Associate Prof. Madan Annavarjula, in the Department of Management, said they have students who speak fluent Russian. The university is very focused on its program in international business, added Raymond W. Fogarty, director of the Chafee Center and the university’s World Trade Center Rhode Island.

The international business degree, an interdisciplinary program at Bryant, has students from 70 countries, Fogarty said, and is expected to grow from 50 graduates to 75. Some of its students speak “three strong languages” and are working on web design as well as practical business applications, he said.