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Rising exports of Alabama-made goods expand state’s role in global economy

MONTGOMERY, Alabama — “Made In Alabama” increasingly translates as “Sold Around The Globe” as exports of Alabama-made goods have posted solid gains in recent years.

Alabama companies shipped their products to 188 countries in 2012, a record year for exports for the state. With overseas shipments of automobiles leading the way, exports from Alabama have risen for three consecutive years, expanding the state’s role in the global economy.

Export totals for January and February 2013 stayed largely on track with the same period in 2012, with substantial gains in shipments to India and South Korea offset by declines in exports to Germany and Brazil. Overseas shipments of Alabama-made vehicles rose more than 15 percent during the first two months of 2013.

“Seeing Alabama exports increase 59 percent from 2009 to 2012 is encouraging and impressive,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “Demand for Alabama-made goods throughout the world is surging, and we will continue to support our companies in these endeavors.”

2013 results

Early totals for 2013 show that transportation equipment remains Alabama’s top export segment, with shipments approaching $1.2 billion in just two months, an increase of 11.7 percent from the same time frame in 2012. Chemicals, the No. 2 category, also showed a gain, rising 5 percent to $471 million in the period. Lower shipments of coal to Brazil and Germany pushed down results in the minerals/ores category. Total exports topped $2.9 billion in January and February.

Canada was the No. 1 destination for Alabama-made products in the first two months of 2013, with exports totaling $567.8 million. China, Germany, Mexico and the United Kingdom were the other top destinations in the year’s first two months.

Significant gains in early 2013 have been recorded in exports to India, an increase of 250 percent thanks to larger shipments of chemicals, vehicles, plastics, and electrical machinery, and South Korea, up 17 percent thanks to chemicals, machinery, and vehicles.

Alabama exports rose nearly 10 percent in 2012 to a record total of $19.5 billion. Canada was the top destination, with shipments rising 19 percent to reach $3.9 billion in 2012. For the year, Germany was the No. 2 partner, with a gain exceeding 30 percent to $2.5 billion. China, Mexico and Japan rounded out the Top Five foreign destinations for Alabama products in 2012.

Alabama’s auto industry has played a major role in the state’s export success. Transportation equipment, including vehicles, was the top export category in 2012, with shipments rising 27 percent to $7.65 billion. Vehicles shipped to more than 80 countries in 2012 accounted for $5.8 billion of that total, or 76 percent.

“Alabama can compete internationally on trade. We can compete on value and quality. The ‘Made In USA’ brand and the ‘Made In Alabama’ brand mean something,” Canfield said.  “We want that ‘Made in Alabama’ brand to compete globally. The companies here compete against others across the globe.”

Increasing exports has been identified as a priority in the Accelerate Alabama strategic economic development growth plan, unveiled in 2012 by Gov. Robert Bentley and top state officials who see a link between export activity and job creation. By one estimate, $1 billion in exports supports 5,000 jobs.

“Exports do create jobs and they do sustain jobs,” said Hilda Lockhart, director of the Alabama Department of Commerce’s International Trade Division, which helps Alabama companies identify export opportunities.

Lockhart’s office organizes trade missions that connect Alabama companies with potential partners in foreign counties and assists companies wanting to participate in overseas trade shows. It also offers one-on-one counseling for Alabama companies looking at international trade.

Export infrastructure

Lockhart said Alabama has built a solid export assistance infrastructure. Her office, which helps 80 to 100 state companies each year, is part of the Export Alabama Alliance, a group of federal, state and local trade agencies that counsel and assist companies on all aspects of global commerce. Other Alliance members include the Alabama Department of Agriculture, the Alabama State Port Authority, the Alabama International Trade Center at the University of Alabama and U.S. Department of Commerce’s Birmingham Export Assistance Center.

Trade missions have been an important part of the effort. In recent years, Alabama companies and trade officials have visited Poland, Hungary, China, India, Colombia, Germany, the Czech Republic, Vietnam and other countries on these trips. A delegation of 11 Alabama companies and organizations traveled to Sweden and Norway in March.

Trade missions to Ireland, Brazil and the United Arab Emirates in 2011 were projected to create $14 million in sales and 1,200 jobs for the 23 Alabama companies that participated. Representatives from those companies had a combined 176 one-on-one appointments on the trips.

Trade officials say many small Alabama companies have enjoyed unexpected export successes:

  • Horizon Shipbuilding in Bayou La Batre delivered vessels valued at more than $60 million to customers in West Africa, the Middle East and Latin America between 2002 and 2009. In 2010, Horizon was the subject of a CNN segment titled “An Alabama Shipyard Saves Itself By Grabbing International Business.”
  • Thomasville Lumber Co. in rural Clarke County exports lumber  valued at more than $10 million a year to customers in the Caribbean, Japan and Western Europe, primarily Spain. The firm purchased and restarted an idle mill and, with help from the Alabama International Trade Center, secured a Small Business Administration export working capital loan.

“If we are selling only to our neighbors, we are missing out on a phenomenal growth opportunity,” Michael Brooks, associate director of the Alabama International Trade Center, said at a recent export event held at the Robotics Technology Park in Tanner.

Lockhart said Alabama’s economy benefits in many ways from companies that export. These firms tend to pay their workers better and offer them more training. They also tend to be more technologically advanced and better suited to compete, making them healthier.

“They are competing all around the world, so they have to be innovative,” Lockhart said.

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