Helping Sonoma County companies export
When Santa Rosa’s Thermochem had trouble obtaining a key financial guarantee to pay for equipment destined for Kenya a year ago, the geothermal testing company turned for help to officials with the U.S. Commerce Department.
“We already had spent a lot of money,” Thermochem President Paul von Hirtz recalled of the $360,000 contract.
The company had agreed to ship equipment that measures the capacity of geothermal wells to generate electricity, similar to what occurs in Sonoma County at The Geysers steam fields. The buyer was Kenya’s main electrical generator, but the overseas company didn’t provide a letter of credit and for a time its staff stopped responding to requests about the delay.
Thermochem contacted officials at the San Rafael office of the U.S. Commercial Service, a trade promotion arm of the Commerce Department. Those officials worked with counterparts at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi to contact the company in Kenya and to help procure the letter of credit this spring.
“If we didn’t have Commerce people to call, it could have not ended well,” said von Hirtz. Instead, the equipment was shipped in May, with payment received in the summer after the goods arrived.
Exports remain a significant part of the Sonoma County economy, amounting to $1.19 billion last year, an increase of 6.7 percent from 2015.
And helping local companies boost exports is the commercial service’s mission.
“It’s the only thing we’re evaluated on,” said Elizabeth Krauth, director of the service’s North Bay office in San Rafael.
Sonoma County has a varied assortment of exporters that produce everything from wine to tech products. The companies include large, publicly traded corporations, such as Santa Rosa-based Keysight Technologies, the world’s largest maker of electronics measurement products, and Milpitas-based Viavi Solutions, whose Santa Rosa division’s products include anti-counterfeiting pigments that are used on the currency of more than 100 nations.
But smaller, privately held businesses and divisions of larger companies also export goods.
In Santa Rosa they include such enterprises as Loring Smart Roast, a maker of specialty coffee-roasting equipment; Blentech Corp., a manufacturer of custom-made industrial cookers and mixers; and Reltek, a Santa Rosa producer of high-performance adhesives, sealants and coatings.
What the county manufacturers offer are quality products that serve niche markets, Krauth said.
“These are technologies that companies around the world need,” she said.
For their part, several company officials said that when shipping products overseas, it helps to have U.S. officials on the ground in foreign lands who can find out key information and troubleshoot when issues arise.
In the Internet era, any businessman can “make yourself look superficially quite good” with a well-done website, said Tom Moulton, director of marketing and sales for global markets at Labcon, a Petaluma maker of pipette tips, medical containers and transfer devices. However, the reality may be “there’s no one behind the curtain.”
When considering work with an overseas business, Labcon officials often “find it pretty much invaluable” to hire the U.S. Commercial Service to speak with the foreign company leaders and obtain financial references, Moulton said.
“It’s a service that can save you a lot of time and money,” he said. “It’s a big help and we’ve done several of those with the commercial service.”