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Forging business relationships with customers in other countries is not a simple task. Cultural and language barriers, different consumer preferences, regulations, and many other factors can make exporting products overseas seem impossible for small and midsize businesses. But thanks to trade missions organized by the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s International Agribusiness Center, more Wisconsin products are showing up on shelves all over the world.

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

Trade Missions Put Producers Ahead of the Curve

“What’s great about these trade missions is all of the pre-work is done for you,” says Michael Stone, president and CEO of The Stone Group, Inc., which markets and sells Wisconsin products domestically and internationally. “If I want to sell in Japan, I’m wondering, ‘How in the world do I start?’ Trade missions put you in front of customers.”

Stone has traveled to Korea, Japan and Mexico through trade missions, and contacts he made on each trip have become customers.

Trade missions are often planned through a partnership between the International Agribusiness Center and Food Export Association of the Midwest USA, a nonprofit organization that promotes the export of food and agricultural products from the Midwest. Then trade experts visit the target country in advance to perform market research, build relationships and promote Wisconsin products. By the time company representatives arrive in the country, vetted buyers already know about their products and are ready to discuss business.

At the same time, International Agribusiness Center staff makes sure Wisconsin companies are ready to do business overseas when an opportunity arises.

“There are different processes, documentation and regulations when selling products internationally,” says Jack Heinemann, director of the Wisconsin International Agribusiness Center. “This program is organized so if you’re new to exporting goods or new to a particular country, the team makes sure you have the correct information, gets you the right meetings and helps you overcome the learning curve very quickly.”

Trade Missions are Affordable and Efficient

Alex Zwilgmeyer is vice president of international at Gehl Foods, a company that makes private label and branded cheese sauces as well as beverages. He says visiting Argentina and Mexico on trade missions was affordable and efficient.

“The people you meet with are vetted and have a positive record in the community, so you’re sitting down with solid people,” Zwilgmeyer says.

Suppliers receive a briefing of the market and visit retail stores on the first day of each trade mission. Day two consists of one-on-one meetings with potential buyers, along with a reception to encourage further relationship building. On the third day, there are follow-up meetings, and suppliers have the option to tour potential buyers’ facilities.

“It’s get in, meet buyers and go home,” says Tim Hamilton, executive director of Food Export Association of the Midwest USA.

How to Close the Deal

While trade missions are effective at introducing Wisconsin companies to potential international customers, it’s essential to follow up after returning from a trip.

“Companies who are active and aggressive in their follow-up are going to be successful,” Hamilton says. “Buyers are busy, so you want to stay on their radar. You have to push to make the sale.”

Zwilgmeyer says trade missions are just the start of a relationship and require visits, negotiations and conversations to close a deal, just like any other sale.

Making contacts and putting in the effort to close the deal reaps huge benefits for the companies selling products, as well as for the producers who make them.

“My producers are so proud their cheeses are being sold in other countries,” Stone says, adding that it may seem intimidating to venture into international business, but it’s worth it.

“Success creates more success,” he says. “Once you crack one international market, you’re probably going to get in somewhere else. It just grows and grows.”


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