Montana companies refine their export plan

Five Montana companies are now better prepared to promote and sell their products outside the United States after completing Montana State University’s inaugural ExporTech program on Monday.

The program, offered by MSU’s Montana Manufacturing Extension Center (MMEC), ran for 10 weeks and included three full-day workshops on campus during which each company developed a written export plan that was vetted by a panel of experts.

Thirteen people from disparate manufacturing industries were represented in the class. They included: DaySpa Body Basics, of Missoula, producers of organic and natural skincare products; Bozeman-based Olivelle that makes specialty cooking oils, vinegars and sea salts; DPS Electronics, from Bozeman, that manufactures electronics for the railway industry; Helena-based Felco Industries and Montana Hydraulics, a multifaceted industrial manufacturing company that makes, among other items, excavator attachments; and UDAP Industries of Butte, which makes bear and pepper sprays and other bear- and personal-protection products.

ExporTech brings businesses in direct contact with experts. In addition to their export-business plans, participants leave the program with state and federal government contacts.

Representatives from successful Montana exporters, the U.S. Small Business Administration, Montana Department of Commerce, the Montana Chamber of Commerce, Helena Small Business Development Center, the U.S. Commercial Service’s Export Assistance Center and Hegger Law Firm, among others, gave presentations and provided personal coaching. In addition, Director of Montana Department of Commerce Meg O’Leary spoke at Monday’s graduation.

These experts are in the business of promoting export business, so the connections will remain valuable in the future, said Ann Wood-Edson, national facilitator for ExporTech.

Businesses that have taken the course see an average annual sales increase of $500,000 to $700,000, according to ExporTech’s website.

This group of participants are projecting revenue increases of between $30,000 to $480,000 in export sales within the next two years, Wood-Edson said.

Most of the participant businesses currently do little, if any, exporting. If they do, it’s primarily to Canada.

Brie Thompson, Olivelle co-founder and owner, said she began exporting gourmet products to Canada in the fall and hopes to bump the company’s export revenue up to 10 percent by the end of the year.

“We want to start working proactively rather reactively,” she said. “So when we heard about the opportunity for this class, we jumped on it. We wanted to be sure we had a well-thought-out plan in place so that we could execute it effectively.”

From legal knowledge and tariff structuring to financial and tactical planning, participants said the program gave them the resources and confidence to pursue international markets.

“What I didn’t know was how many resources were out there for Montana companies,” said Lori Parker, who co-owns DaySpa Body Basics with her husband, Randy. “It would have been really difficult to learn that without the class.”

Della Ehlke, Felco Industries and Montana Hydraulics owner, was surprised to learn about the array of assistance available to Montana’s small manufacturing businesses.

Aaron Kellum, Felco and Montana Hydraulics operations manager, said exports to Canada represent about two to five percent of their annual sales, but they plan to expand their market there.

“ExporTech provided the push and resources that helped us develop an international marketing plan,” he said. 

There are myriad opportunities for Montana-made products outside North America, MMEC Director Paddy Fleming said.

“There’s really this misconception among small manufacturers that they have to be nationwide before they can delve into exporting. And a lot of Montana companies think, ‘I’m not an exporter,’ but they’re already selling to Canada,” he said. “But oftentimes, there’s a much higher profit margin in international markets.”

More than 740 companies in 31 states have participated in 140 ExporTech programs since 2007. The program is part of the national Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The program in Montana is offered in partnership with the U.S. Commercial Service, FedEx, the Small Business Administration, the Montana Department of Commerce and the Montana Chamber of Commerce.

Another ExporTech session is expected to be held this spring. For more information, contact Jenni West, MMEC associate director, at (406) 994-3876 or

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