For Robert Lindberg, an opportunity appeared last December when the president of a Chinese company brought a group of top managers to the offices of Santa Rosa adhesives manufacturer Reltek.
As a result of that meeting, Reltek acquired a new distributor for exports to China. Ten months later, sales of its high-performance adhesives, sealants and coatings are taking place from a new office in Ningbo, China, staffed by five of the Chinese company’s employees.
In turn, the Santa Rosa business of nine workers has expanded its own facilities in an office park near Corporate Center Parkway.
“We now have enough space to triple our volume, which we plan to do in the next three to five years,” said Lindberg, Reltek’s founder, president and CEO.
For Reltek, whose bonding products are used in outer space and under earth and sea, China is an untapped market. Lindberg said its new distributor, part of Ningbo-based Sino-Resource Group, has needed connections there in government and business.
“It’s not a U.S. company trying to knock down the doors,” he said.
Exports remain a significant part of Sonoma County’s economy, totaling $1.1 billion last year. That amounted to a 1 percent increase from 2014, according to data provided by the U.S. Commerce Department.
U.S. companies need to seek international markets because of the enormous growth expected in many foreign economies, said Dick Herman, president of 101 MFG, an alliance of manufacturing executives in Northern California. He likened such growth to what the U.S. experienced in the 1960s.
“Half to two-thirds of the world is going through their consumer boom,” Herman said. Companies that limit business to the U.S. will “have a finite growth potential.”
Also, growth in international sales typically allows a company to significantly boost productivity, which in turn can lead to higher pay for workers.
When county residents think about exports, Herman said, “the ‘why’ I care is wages.”
While county exports showed little growth last year, Sonoma did better than California, where exports fell 9 percent to $167.9 billion, and the U.S., which saw exports drop 7 percent to $1.5 trillion.
Officials for the commerce department attributed the national decline to a drop in the prices of petroleum and agricultural products, plus weaker international demand and a stronger dollar that made U.S. goods more expensive.
In the county, top export sectors remain computer and electronics manufacturing, chemical manufacturing, beverage manufacturing including wines and distilled spirits, and machinery manufacturing.
Asia, Canada, Mexico markets
Over the past decade, county exports to Asia have grown 25 percent to $451.9 million last year and have soared 92 percent to $287.5 million to North American Free Trade Agreement partners Canada and Mexico.
But for the same period, exports to the European Union declined 36 percent to $189 million. In 2008, E.U. exports peaked at $405.7 million.
Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, acknowledged 2016 is a year when presidential candidates from both parties have raised concerns about the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement or about American jobs lost as a result of such treaties. But he maintained that trade agreements typically have made it easier for the county’s wine and tech sectors to sell their goods abroad.