Foundation for N.C. lumber exports built on strong relationships

The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services helps promote exports of N.C. agricultural products through its International Marketing office. Through these efforts, North Carolina now exports about $3 billion in agricultural products each year. Over the next few weeks, we’ll highlight some local growers and food manufacturers finding success on the global stage.

Bill Graban, CEO of Prime Lumber in Thomasville, exports 60 containers of lumber a week.

From the forests of North Carolina to the cities of China, Thomasville’s Prime Lumber is building an exporting market one relationship at a time. The company, started in 1988 by co-owners Bill Graban and Jeffrey Neidert, now exports 60 containers of hardwood a week.

Prime Lumber is just one of North Carolina’s lumber companies finding success overseas. Last fall, several local lumber companies traveled to China with Rob Hosford, NCDA&CS international trade specialist, to meet with potential buyers throughout the country.

The department’s new trade office in China has been instrumental in preparing for those meetings. Staff there translate brochures and fact sheets for N.C. companies, register for trade shows and set up booths. Often, regional companies are grouped together for foreign shows. For instance, local companies might be paired with other groups in a booth representing all Appalachian lumber.

While trade shows offer the opportunity to meet a large number of potential buyers, Hosford understands the benefit of building a relationship with a select number of buyers.

“I prefer to take five guys to 10 meetings with buyers who we know are interested,” Hosford said. “It’s all about establishing a relationship.”

In setting up those meetings, the international marketing team makes the initial contact with potential buyers. Members research the types of wood, cuts and finishes the buyers want and determine what price range the buyers are looking for. On a typical weeklong trip, Hosford and his team will arrange 10-15 meetings with potential buyers. When the N.C. companies arrive in China, most of the leg work has been done already.

“When you’ve only got seven to 10 days, you have to make every minute count,” Hosford said. “That’s why we help these companies be prepared the minute they touch down.”

In Chinese culture, personal relationships are an important part of doing business. Often, department staff will keep relationships fresh between Chinese buyers and N.C. sellers. This involves making phone calls, sending emails and using Skype to keep in contact.

Those relationships could pay off for local companies such as Prime Lumber. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, exporting companies grow 22 percent faster than non-exporting companies, have higher profits and stay in business longer.

In addition to building relationships with buyers, the department’s International Marketing office also provides assistance securing phytosanitary certificates and taking advantage of the Gold Key Matching Service from the U.S. Department of Commerce. The certificates are required for all agricultural exports, while the marketing service offers valuable market research and support to U.S. companies wishing to export.

In a few weeks, we’ll share another success story from the International Marketing office. Until then, look for updates from the office on LinkedIn.

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