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Global Carolina Profile: Suresh Kumar

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COLUMBIA, SC – Assistant U.S. Secretary for Trade Promotion and Director General of the U.S. & Foreign Commercial Service Suresh Kumar made the purpose of his visit immediately clear at a business roundtable held in Columbia and sponsored by New Carolina–South Carolina’s Council on Competitiveness. Echoing President Obama’s words from his recent State of the Union address, Kumar said, in no uncertain terms: “It’s about winning the future.”

Prior to joining the Obama administration, Kumar spent over thirty years as an international businessman, consultant, and professor of management education. Kumar has led global businesses of major U.S. corporations and been responsible for business units across all continents. So he is no stranger to global challenges – or to challenging economic times. And he knows that the current economic downturn requires a major shift in the way we think about the United States’ role in the global economy. “Doing more of what we’ve been doing,” Kumar said, “simply isn’t going to work.”

The U.S. Consumer – No Longer the Driving Force
“What we’ve been doing” in the United States, and indeed throughout the world, is relying too heavily on the U.S. consumer to drive the global economy. And though major exporting countries such as China, Canada, and Germany continue to rely to a large degree on U.S. consumers for their products, U.S. companies can no longer afford to look only within our own borders for selling their products and services. “The simple fact is that 95 percent of the world’s potential consumers are outside of the United States,” Kumar said. “And despite this fact, only about 1 percent of America’s 30 million companies export, and of those that do, 58 percent sell to only one market.”

In other words, the United States can no longer allow an “element of inertia,” as Kumar called it, to affect our economic efforts. If we are to retain our spot as the world’s top economy, this inertia needs to be replaced by innovation. “Innovation is really the key,” Kumar stated. “Not only is there tremendous potential for growth in exports, but American goods and services are the most innovative in the world. They are well-regarded and have an unmatched brand appeal around the globe – giving U.S. companies a real advantage in the global marketplace.”

The National Export Initiative – Doubling Exports in Five Years
Kumar’s visit to the Carolinas is part of what could be called a “promotional tour” for the Obama administration’s National Export Initiative (NEI). Announced in January 2010 by the President, the NEI aims to double U.S. exports within five years while supporting millions of U.S. jobs. This is the first time the United States has a government-wide export-promotion strategy with focused attention from the President and his Cabinet. And the initiative is already seeing successes. “Our goal in the first year was to see an increase in exports of around 15 percent,” said Kumar. “So far we’ve seen a nationwide increase of 18 percent – and the Carolinas are right at the national average with 18 percent increases as well.”

The NEI is focused on five key areas: improving trade advocacy and export promotion efforts; increasing access to credit, especially for small and midsize businesses; removing barriers to the sale of U.S. goods and services abroad; enforcing trade rules; and pursuing policies at the global level to promote strong, sustainable, and balanced growth. “Many U.S. companies don’t export because they believe it to be too burdensome or aren’t aware of the many export resources available to them,” Kumar stated. “In reality, if a business has a good track record of selling domestically, it’s likely a good candidate for making global sales. With the Internet, improved logistics, and export services available, exporting is more doable than ever, particularly for small and midsize businesses.”

Participants at the business roundtable sponsored by New Carolina–SC's Council on Competitiveness included leaders from business, government, and economic development sectors. Among those in attendance were:

George Fletcher, Director New Carolina

Amy Love, Deputy Director New Carolina

Ed Sellers, Chairman of the Board New Carolina

Otis Rawl, President of the SC Chamber of Commerce

Fred Monk, President ECI-Find New Markets

Cecelia Shepherd, CEO of Compass International

Michael Bolick, President Lab21 and SC BIO

Joe Dougherty, Vice President of International Sales and Marketing Harsco Rail

Peter Gasca, Co-Founder and CEO Wild Creations

Michael O'Leary, COO Rhythmlink International

The NEI and the Carolinas – Stories of Success
Nearly 30 percent of all manufacturing workers in the Carolinas depend on exports for their jobs, one of the highest figures among the 50 states. And as a result of the NEI, numerous export channels have opened up to companies in the Carolinas – and not just with traditional trading partners such as Mexico, Canada, and Germany. “The Carolinas have had particular success recently in markets such as Saudi Arabia, India, and Hong Kong,” said Kumar.

One small company that has realized success through exports is Columbia, SC-based Compass International. Kumar, joined by director of the South Carolina Commercial Service office, Dorette Coetsee, presented Compass CEO Cecelia Shepherd with the Export Achievement Award from the South Carolina office of the U.S. Commercial Service. Compass International is an export management and trading company representing niche U.S. products from various industries, including, among others, foodservice equipment, animal health products, and medical equipment and supplies. The company has been a client of the Columbia U.S. Export Assistance Center since its inception in 2002, and was the recipient of the 2008 SBA Small Business Exporter of the Year award for South Carolina and named 2007 World Trader of the Year by the South Carolina World Trade Center.

Compass International is just one of many companies that have realized success by utilizing the Commercial Service. With innovative products being designed and manufactured right here in the Carolinas, from cars to planes to high-tech devices – in addition to our world-class international business programs and port system – the future of business, and of exporting, in our states looks bright. “Compass’s story is truly one of global success,” said Coetsee. “These are the stories about global business in the Carolinas that need to be told, and we at the Commercial Service and the District Export Council are dedicated to telling them.”

Continuing Challenges – New Initiatives
Despite these successes, many challenges remain. “With nationwide unemployment between 9 and 10 percent – and with even higher numbers here in the Carolinas – we can’t exactly rest on our laurels,” Kumar said. “In addition to innovation, we must push for better education of our students and our workforce, so they can lead the industries of the future.”

Further challenges to companies, many of them SMEs, continue to exist as well, most notably in the form of the continuing credit crunch. Although the Small Business Administration and Export-Import Bank have received US$2 billion in federal stimulus funds specifically set aside for small and midsize businesses, these monies have been spread out among nearly 18,000 companies, meaning loans can still be hard to come by. “Export-related trade financing among private institutions more or less ceased to exist after the economic collapse of 2008,” Kumar stated. “We have more work to do to get these private institutions lending again.”

Despite the myriad challenges, however, there is much to be encouraged by. Kumar lauded current collaborative initiatives between local universities, district export councils, and economic development agencies as helping to keep the Carolinas at the forefront of the worldwide trend toward increased cooperation. “I am very impressed with what I have seen here today,” Kumar concluded. “The initiatives around identifying and nurturing clusters, as is being done at New Carolina, and the public-private collaboration between businesses and state agencies, are creating a spirit of cooperation in the Carolinas that will drive innovation and entrepreneurship – helping ensure that the U.S. and local economies not only recover, but thrive in the new economic reality.”

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