Originally published at CMCC News.
Twenty-five South Carolina-based companies have benefited from a less than 2-year-old program designed to help them begin or ramp up international sales.
One small but growing company that has benefited, in part, from its involvement in the World Trade Center Charleston’s Export Charleston training program now sends its handcrafted candles made from re-purposed wine bottles to approximately 40 countries.
Tristan Roquette, of Charleston-headquartered Rewined, part of a family of brands under the umbrella of one firm, said the World Trade Center Charleston program helped the company navigate the sometimes tricky international trade waters.
“Our internal resources and determination, coupled with the training from World Trade Center Charleston helped us with understanding the mechanics of international trade, do’s and don’ts, paperwork requirements, international commerce rules and terms,” Roquette told CMCC News.
Pennie Bingham, executive director of the World Trade Center in Charleston, and a driving force behind the program, said those companies that took part in the course since it began in early 2015 have reported increased sales totaling more than $4 million.
“Not all have reported back, so that is a conservative number,” said Bingham.
A deliberately small number of companies are taking part in the latest course that began in late September. Company representatives will spend four days over three months doing in-house training with outside assignments to complete.
Coaches from the U.S. Commercial Service and the Small Business Development Centers assist with creating customized export plans.
The program also connects companies with College of Charleston, where researchers study specific markets.
Bingham said the genesis of the program was a 2013 study carried out in tandem with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. to develop an export growth strategy for the Charleston region. Analysis of that study revealed most small to medium-sized companies did not know how to grow exports, or locate the resources available to help.
This year, Bingham said, those in the course will also have more education on using the Port of Charleston.
Tristan Roquette, international sales and marketing manager at Rewined, said one motivator to move into international markets was revenue. But more importantly, Roquette said, “We knew we had to be first to market in Europe with our brand concepts, especially Rewined, to take the lead from any ‘copy-cats’ that were starting to sprout.”
Roquette said the company saw this trend in the U.S., in regions where they “were working hard to spread our Rewined story.”
“Product-imitators would present themselves rather quickly, so trying to get ahead of that curve was our main motivator for expanding internationally at a relatively young point in our companies growth,” Roquette.
The Export Charleston training program came at the right time of the company’s plans to develop internationally.
“It helped tremendously,” Roquette said. “We are a small company out of Charleston, S.C. that once had zero experience in markets outside of the USA.”
He added, “So we created my role to put the proper resources in place to get things started.” He also said he learned a few good tricks of international trade from the program.
The company was selling in the U.K. and Europe prior to Roquette undertaking the World Trade Center Charleston program on behalf of Rewined. The company controlled the sales and distribution.
Following a first trade show in the spring of 2013, Rewined executives huddled and realized they were not the realizing pace of growth targets.
“That’s when we decided to hire specifically for this goal,” Roquette said. “That was a risk, as the conventional school of thought can be to increase revenues to an optimal level prior to bringing on additional human resources, but bunking that convention worked in our favor in this scenario.”
The company switched its international sales model in early 2015, loosening direct control and partnering strategically located distributors.
“Initially (before distributors) our footprint reached a few European countries and a handful of stores in Asia and Australia,” Roquette said. “The switch to distributors had a huge impact in sales but, more importantly, product placement in stores, media and ultimately consumers’ hands.”
The company now exports to approximately 40 countries, either directly or indirectly through international distributors. An export arm can erode margins in the short term while distribution partnerships are developed.
“So you have to sell more to make up the difference,” Roquette said. “Export is a long-term investment.”
Roquette advises that while planning to ramp up exports to be “adaptable and don’t let setbacks discourage you.”
Bingham agreed, saying she advises that a company needs to be in business for a time, maybe two years, before tackling international market.