Detroit small businesses going global to push growth

Corey Williams
Associated Press

Detroit – One of the next stages in Detroit’s revitalization could involve China, South Korea, the Middle East or even India through a program that helps businesses market their products in foreign markets while creating jobs for city residents.

Seven companies are learning the ropes of international sales and global partnerships during the first phase of ExporTech Detroit, part of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp’s “Built in Detroit” initiative.

The 10-week program started earlier this year. Companies attend workshops and eventually pitch plans to a group of experienced exporters who give them feedback.

State, federal and private sector trade resources also are available to “create a road map for companies to develop individual sales strategies,” said Sandra Choi, Detroit Economic Growth Corp. senior business development manager for global commerce.

The Kirlin Co. is part of the program. Kirlin has been in Detroit since 1919 and develops, manufactures and ships LED Healthcare lighting systems, custom lighting and other products from its 98,600-square-foot facility on the city’s east side.

It already exports products, but expects to increase its footprint in the Middle East, Japan, South Korea, Canada, the Caribbean and other island nations through ExporTech. It’s also looking to get into markets in Singapore, Australia and Chile, said Jana Brownell, Kirlin’s president.

ExporTech helps put Kirlin in touch with overseas partners, researches and vets potential distributors and sales representative, and sponsors trade missions, Brownell said.

“Our focus is on expanding international demand for our lighting systems which improve patient outcomes by forming new partnerships in select countries which place a high value on health,” Brownell said. Through ExporTech “we have to find who is the right fit.”

Its lighting systems for newborn deliveries in hospital birthing suites and lighting to improve clinical accuracy of MRI are at the forefront of Kirlin’s export offers.

It makes lighting systems for military bases and has given price quotes for the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, the U.S. Naval Base in Guam, and airports in Saudi Arabia and Bermuda.

Quotes on birthing suite lighting have been given to hospitals in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Dubai, Brownell said.

“It is feasible that our medical lighting division would expand to the point where we need a separate manufacturing space for it,” Brownell said. “Exporting is where we expect to see the most rapid growth in our business.”

Foreign direct investment and helping existing businesses through export related activities is a must for many Detroit small businesses, said Peter Chapman, Detroit Economic Growth Corp. executive vice president of business development.

“If we are going to realize our potential to achieve full economic resurgence and revitalization, we have to compete on a global level,” Chapman said.

The export economy for the Detroit region was $42 billion in 2016, he added.

“There were roughly 271,000 jobs connected to the export economy,” he said. “The more businesses we have who are expanding their base of customers through export related activities, the better the prospects for the growth and expansion of those companies, and thus, the better the prospects for putting Detroiters to work.”

Detroit was near rock-bottom economically in 2013 when a state-appointed financial manager took the city into the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The city exited bankruptcy at the end of 2014 after restructuring $7 billion in debt and is expected to have a fourth consecutive year with a balanced budget.

Development and investment are up across some parts of the city, especially downtown and in Midtown.

ExporTech was developed by the U.S. Commerce department. It allows participants to present their strategies to a panel of experienced exporters and aims to create an international trade ecosystem so that businesses that have graduated can continue to consult with each other.

“We view export as a real, sort of, catalyst for new job growth and new business growth here in our city within our existing business community,” Choi said. “It’s not all just about attracting new business. We want to make sure companies in Detroit city are growing and that these jobs are going to be accessible to folks that have been here.”

When it filed bankruptcy, Detroit’s unemployment rate was more than 18 percent. The rate in February was at 9.5 percent. The nation’s unemployment rate is about 4 percent, while Michigan’s rate is just under 5 percent.

Kirlin has 48 employees. Nearly all of its manufacturing staff lives in Detroit. The company expects to hire at least 10 more workers across all operations as exports increase.

“We’ve learned so much more with ExporTech,” Brownell said. “This is the beginning of an organized effort that is going to position Kirlin for 100 years into the future as an international company. We are never leaving Detroit. We bring our customers to Detroit.”