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A brave new world

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It wasn’t about buying and selling, or even about trade. It was about making contacts with people on both sides of the border.

And it was a real success for Trish Neilson of Rainy River Preserves, who was attending her first “Northern Networks” trade conference.

Neilson decided to attend the fourth-annual conference—held in Fort Frances last week—because she and her husband, Colin, were ready to move into the U.S. market and she wanted some partnerships to do that.

“I’m not expecting to make 20 contacts," she admitted on the first day of the conference, but was hoping to get "six solid interested people.”

But Neilson didn’t make six contacts. She made 36—and that was at the end of the first day only.

“You get leads and then you get good leads. And these I consider good leads,” she noted.

“I’m really glad I came. To meet these kind of people would take me a lot of time on the road. And probably, no one would talk to me,” she laughed.

“[But here] they seem open and ready for business.”

Because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has certain labelling requirements, Neilson said she’s a little leery to make a big investment until she knows exactly what her market is.

“I’m not going to speculate on the market,” she stressed.

But Donna Messer with “Connect Us”—a Canadian communications company specializing in U.S.-Canada trade—said going south of the 49th parallel has proved a profitable move for many Canadian businesses because of the size of the market.

Norfab Building Components of Crozier, for instance, is one business that’s hit the jackpot south of the border. Sales manager Brian Hagarty said they ventured into the U.S. market three years ago—with sales doubling this year over last.

That translated into 25 more full-time jobs, with Norfab now employing 55 full-time workers (up from a peak of 30 last year).

“It’s been a big boost for the Fort Frances economy,” enthused Hagarty, who also spoke to conference participants on exporting value-added products as a way of working around softwood lumber quotas.

But Norfab hasn’t exhausted its search for new U.S. markets. The challenge now was to narrow down where it wanted to export to, which Hagarty noted was like finding “a needle in a haystack.”

The big challenge would be keeping up with the demand. If a company is going to export to such a large market, it had to be able to supply the volume—and keep it rolling in.

Back for his fourth trade conference, Hagarty felt he got more out of it each year.

“Each year it gets better,” echoed Dave Dumke with the Wisconsin Counties Association.

It’s taking a different approach. The first “Northern Networks” conference spurred a financial partnership between Minnesota, Thunder Bay, Wisconsin and Michigan to do a Lake Superior tour and market it in Germany.

“What we’ve tried to do is look at the whole region as a geographical region instead of a politically-divided region,” noted Dumke, adding it made sense for the area to market to the world because it held a similar appeal to tourists.

“This is only the first partnership. We think it will expand into manufacturing products," he added. "Nobody’s big enough to market internationally. You’ve got to do it together.”

But not everyone in attendance was looking at potential exports. Barr Engineering Inc., an environmental engineering and information technology service in Duluth, was here to promote its technology side to those attending from the Duluth and Iron Range area

“Basically, if we get into Canada, that’s great. But it’s not a market we pursue aggressively,” noted Steve Tarnowski, an information technology rep.

And while her family business imports a small amount, Nancy Martin of Floyd’s Glass in Thunder Bay said she and her brothers mostly were looking to maintain their present sales in Thunder Bay.

“I’m here just to promote myself, promote my business, and to get ideas on new products that we can sell in Thunder Bay," she said. "I’m here to let people know that we do more than auto glass.”

But two years ago at the “Northern Networks” conference hosted by Superior, Wis., Martin said they picked up a new product—glass awards. And now they have a distributor in Fort Frances, which it found at last year’s conference in Duluth, Mn.

“It’s a small connection but it’s definitely a small connection for us,” she added.

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