Small business owners visit Japan, Korea, see export opportunities

By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington Small Business Development Center

MOSES LAKE, Wash. – Nine Washington small business owners selling snack bars, organic flour, eyewear, processed hay, museum exhibits, glacier water, and heaters fueled by waste oil recently returned from a nine-day, business-to-business trade visit to Korea and Japan with sales and high expectations.

bumblebar_logo“We think there is a big opportunity for what we do in the high-end international space,” said Glenn Ward, who owns Spokane-based BumbleBar organic energy snacks with his wife, Liz.

In addition to selling their own branded bars, BumbleBar is also a co-packer and creates private label organic energy bars for other companies. While in Japan, Ward met with executives at A&F, Japan’s largest outdoor recreation retail business, to discuss creating an A&F energy bar.

All remaining inventory sold

eckenburg farms hay cubesChristy Mastin, international sales manager for Eckenberg Farms, said her company has been selling hay to Japan since 1953. For her, the visit was a great opportunity to strengthen relationships with existing buyers in Japan and introduce their hay cubes and pellets to new buyers in Korea. She came home with orders for all the remaining inventory of their 2017 harvest.

The June 5-7 trip was organized by the Grant County Economic Development Council and the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in collaboration with Korea International Trade Association (KITA) and (Japanese External Trade Organization (JETRO). The small business owners also received $1,500 STEP grants from the Washington Department of Commerce that helped defray the cost of travel.

Washington’s name recognition

Allan Peterson

The Washington SBDC is a network of two dozen business advisors and two international trade specialists who work with business owners who want to start, grow or transition their business. The Washington SBDC is hosted by Washington State University and is a program of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Allan Peterson, the SBDC advisor in Moses Lake, said he’s encouraged that more rural business owners are beginning to see the value and the potential of export trade. “Export sales bring totally new dollars to the local community,” he said. “That’s one value of doing exporting. The other is that the export market for U.S. goods and services is strong and growing. We are finding that Washington state has strong name recognition.”

Jenkins Vern

Vern Jenkins, one of two international trade specialists with the Washington SBDC, said business-to-business outbound trade meetings have the potential to be incredibly productive when both sides have done their homework and come prepared.

“Our goal is to get businesses in front of other businesses so that they can do business,” he said.

Determine market, create plan

Early in the process, interested owners worked with the Washington SBDC market research team to determine if there was a market for their goods in Korea or Japan. The owners then worked with Jenkins and Peterson to ensure that they had a viable export plan in place. Jenkins and Peterson were able to sit in on many of the meetings and will be available to follow up with clients on next steps.

Peterson, who has been an SBDC business advisor in Moses Lake since 2004, said it’s important to realize that the trip is not a one-off event, but part of a sustained advising relationship to support small business owners as they build export trade. “The real secret of the sauce is that we work one-on-one with clients every day,” Peterson said.

60 meetings in Seoul, Tokyo

The Washington delegation participated in more than 40 business-to-business meetings in Seoul and more than 20 business meetings in Tokyo. They also met with a business delegation from Gunpo, a city near Seoul that has a Sister City relationship with Grant County, and with U.S. Agricultural Trade officers.

homestead family grains logoDerek Schafer, operations manager for Homestead Family Grain, said the trip was an incredible opportunity to meet importers face-to-face in their own country. Homestead Family Grain is a partnership of six farming families in Eastern Washington who have traditionally sold their crops overseas as commodities, but joined together two years ago to begin selling directly to buyers who want specialty grains, seeds and flour.

The families of Homestead Family Farms have been farming for generations, Schafer said, and are committed to sustainable agriculture and stewardship of the land. By selling a value-added product directly to the end user, Schafer said, the families will have a little more protection against global price fluctuations on commodities.

Start at end and work backwards

glacianova seal Joon “Sungwook” Choe, president of GlaciaNova, said he talked with five companies in Korea and three in Japan about their interest in importing glacier water from Mount Rainier. The talks were useful, he said, but visiting stores in both countries and seeing what kinds of products sell in which stores was even more useful. “I realized it’s best to start from the end placement and work backward,” Choe said. He worked with Jenkins for six months prior to the trip and appreciated his expertise as well as his persistence and methodic approach to building an export plan. “Thanks to Vern, we now have huge insights into how to crack these markets.”

Choe said he didn’t think he’d have much in common with the other business owners on the trip. He was the only business owner from Western Washington and for the most part they all had very different products to sell. But, he said, he was surprised. “One of the biggest rewards was meeting these other people from Washington state,” he said. “This trip was very, very beneficial in identifying good people to work with.”

This trip was the second trip to Korea organized by Grant County EDC and the Washington SBDC. The first trip was in April 2016 and included five business owners from Eastern Washington. According to Jenkins, participants reported that the 2016 trip resulted in more than $1 million in economic impacts. Jenkins said he expects the impacts from this trip to be similar.

For more information about the Washington SBDC, click here.

Media Contact:

  • Vern Jenkins, international trade specialist, Washington SBDC, 509-358-7998,
  • Allan Peterson, SBDC advisor in Moses Lake, 509-762-6040,
  • Hope Belli Tinney, director of communications, Washington Small Business Development Center, 509-432-8254,