By Ben Jacklet
Workers at Hydra-Power Systems in Portland build custom manifolds for vehicles for an industrial market that is becoming increasingly global. // Photos by Eric Näslund
For Oregon City’s Benchmade Knife Company, the next frontier is China. Not manufacturing there — selling there.
For Redmond-based Mountain High Oxygen & Supply, it’s the Czech Republic.
For Portland’s Columbia Green, it’s Canada.
For Clackamas-based Castor & Pollux Pet Works, it’s South Africa — and China if the rules ever change.
And for Columbia Industrial Products in Eugene, it might be India. Or Brazil. Or maybe both.
As the dollar weakens and overseas economies continue to grow, Oregon-based businesses are scrambling to go global with varying degrees of success. Young companies are moving into international markets for the first time. Veteran firms are following the money into nations once written off as not worth the effort. Some are selling finished products. Others are finding their ways into global supply chains. Still others are exporting First-World expertise to nations with rising fortunes.
It’s all part of a massive global power shift. The International Monetary Fund predicts that 87% of world economic growth over the next five years will occur outside of the United States. The opportunity is vast for exporters selling to China, Brazil, India and South Korea, not to mention Colombia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, South Africa, Turkey and Vietnam.
Oregon is already a strong exporter. A recent Brookings Institution report identified the Portland metropolitan region as the second-most export-heavy local economy in the nation after Witchita, Kansas. Portland was one of four U.S. cities to double exports from 2003 to 2008, outperforming larger cities such as Atlanta, Phoenix and Miami.
This should count as an advantage, since wages tend to be higher at firms that export and ripple effects can spread the prosperity generated by international trade far and wide. But the bulk of Oregon’s success as an exporter can be traced back to one corporation: Intel. For the small- and medium-sized businesses that make up much of the rest of the state’s economy, going global can be as daunting as it is tempting. “The U.S. has been outsourcing work for a long time,” says Noah Siegel, director of international relations for the City of Portland. “Rebuilding exports is easier said than done.” Barriers to trade include language and cultural differences, protectionist trade policies, prohibitive tariffs, opaque regulations, delayed payments, questionable governance, intellectual property theft and even flat-out bribery.