The Times West Virginian

April 6, 2014

Despite coal decline, West Virginia remains strong in exporting

By Jessica Borders
Times West Virginian

MANNINGTON — Companies throughout West Virginia are bringing new dollars into the economy by exporting.

The governor’s office recently reported that the state’s exports in 2013 totaled $8.4 billion. This is the third-highest amount of exports that West Virginia has seen in its history.

The state saw an overall decrease in exports in 2013, primarily due to coal’s decline. However, people should keep in mind that 2012 was an usually high year for exporting — at $11.3 billion, which was a record — because of the great demand for coal, said Steve Spence, director of the International Division of the West Virginia Development Office.

For many years, the state’s exports were in the range of about $2 billion or $3 billion, he said. The number increased to $4.8 billion in 2009, $6.4 billion in 2010 and $9 billion in 2011, which was the second-highest year for exports.

“The export of $8.4 billion in West Virginia products contributed greatly to our overall economic growth in 2013,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in a press release. “During the past three years, the total value of West Virginia’s exports exceeds $28 billion. I commend our state’s exporters for their continued success in global markets.”

In West Virginia, coal — at $4.4 billion — was the product with the largest export sales in 2013. The state’s coal exports are down 40 percent compared to 2012, when the amount was $7.4 billion.

But, by far, the largest percentage of U.S. coal continues to come from West Virginia. The state had about 50 percent of the U.S. coal exports in 2012, and 39 percent in 2013, Spence said.

After coal, plastics and machinery followed as the leading export products, at approximately $1.1 billion and $757.1 million, respectively. As a whole, non-coal exports reached $3.9 billion, which showed an increase of $47 million.

Companies in West Virginia sold their products to 144 countries last year, compared to 136 in 2012.

The following countries were the state’s leading export markets: Canada, Netherlands, China, Brazil, Italy, United Kingdom, France, Mexico, Turkey and India. For coal exports specifically, the top markets were: Netherlands, Italy, United Kingdom, Brazil, France, Turkey, Ukraine, India, Morocco and Mexico.

“A company has to be producing a quality product or they’re not able to export,” Spence said.

He said these export statistics are a positive reflection of the fact that West Virginia has expertise in many products and industries. Companies that sell domestically and have quality products can reach out to international customers and find success. It’s just a matter of those companies being aggressive and working to go after those markets.

“West Virginia itself is less than 2 million people,” Spence said. “We’re quite skilled in looking beyond our borders to find customers. The type of industries we’re in, there are opportunities around the world.”

He explained that the International Division of the West Virginia Development Office has two primary functions: to help companies in the state export and to attract international investment into the state.

Many times, companies establish facilities in West Virginia that create direct jobs and also add to the state’s export numbers. International companies often use West Virginia as a base to export to other countries, because they’re able to export to those markets more easily, Spence said.

In terms of promoting exports, the office mainly works with small- to medium-sized companies, he said. The staff, in cooperation with the U.S. Commercial Service, can provide individual counseling and help companies find the best markets for their products.

“Together, we help a company figure out where to sell,” Spence said.

They also sponsor trade shows or trade missions to allow companies to meet potential customers. Several events are coming up.

For instance, the U.S. Commercial Service is holding Trade Winds — The Americas in May in Columbia. The West Virginia Development Office’s International Division plans to take five to seven companies from the state to this conference to try to sell their products to potential customers from Central and South America, Spence said.

The International Division is also hosting its own trade mission to Mexico in July, and is recruiting companies with any types of industrial products to participate, he said. Companies have to pay for their travel and a small fee, but the division makes interpreters available and schedules appointments for the individual companies so they can attempt to enter into that market.

In addition, a trip to China for a wood products trade show is being planned for September.

The office is seeing a good response to the events it is sponsoring. Companies are very interested in finding international customers, Spence said.

“We certainly think 2014 will be a good year,” he said of the state’s exports.

Tomblin, the West Virginia Export Council and the West Virginia Development Office have an annual export award program called the Governor’s Commendation for International Market Entry, which recognizes companies that sell to a new country for the first time.

Last year, 52 West Virginia companies received awards for expanding their business to new parts of the world. Backbone Security in Fairmont was among the recipients.

Spence expects to see many companies celebrated this year for their success in exporting.

Email Jessica Borders at jborders@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @JBordersTWV.