Looking to export to the US market? Canada’s Consul General in Chicago shares 25 years of advice and insights

As Canada’s Consul General in Chicago, Roy Norton represents Canada and promotes Canadian interests – including trade and investment – in three key mid-Western States: Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin. He has also served as Canada’s Consul General to Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio, based in Detroit and, from 2006 to 2010, was Minister at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C., having previously served in the Embassy’s Economic Section from 1990-1994. From 2000 until 2006, he worked for the Government of Ontario, including as Assistant Deputy Minister Export Development and as President/CEO of Ontario Exports Inc., in the Ministry of Economic Development and Trade.

ExportWise recently spoke with Roy Norton and Darcee Munroe, Canada’s Senior Trade Commissioner in Chicago, about how the Consulate General assists Canadian companies looking to export to the United States.

ExportWise: How much of your time as Consul General do you spend on trade matters?

Roy Norton: About 25 to 35 per cent of my time is on trade and investment promotion.

ExportWise: Is that an indication of how important trade is to the work of the Consulate General?

Roy Norton: Absolutely.

ExportWise: Tell us about the trade team you’ve got.

Roy Norton: Darcee Munroe is the Senior Trade Commissioner, who’s very experienced, especially in the United States; this is her third posting in the U.S. She was also in San Francisco, and in New York on loan with the Government of Ontario, and has worked extensively at headquarters on trade policy and trade facilitation. The other Canadian is Alexis Roy, this is his first posting. He works principally on investment attraction and promoting innovation and research partnerships, that kind of thing. And then between them, they have a staff of seven locally engaged officers, two of whom are administrative assistants and five of whom are trade commissioners: one works on investment and the other four work in specific priority trade promotion areas.

ExportWise: What are your priority areas?

Darcee Munroe: We choose our priority areas by looking at not only what our Canadian capabilities are but what the opportunities are in this market or territory (Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri and northwest Indiana). So the areas that we have chosen to focus on are aerospace, advanced manufacturing, agriculture/food & beverage, clean tech, infrastructure/building products, life sciences and education marketing. But we serve every Canadian client who comes in with a request, even if they’re not in these priority areas.

ExportWise. Are there certain regions that you see as more important or as better opportunities?

Roy Norton: You can break out the territory in a number of different ways: major municipalities might be the best way, and obviously Chicago is by far the largest component of the territory, and Chicago does it all. But in St. Louis, you would have, for example, a major focus on agriculture, agri-food and aerospace/defence. In Kansas City, you’d have a major focus on health sciences, life sciences, veterinary and animal health. In Milwaukee and elsewhere in Wisconsin, on advanced manufacturing generally, clean tech, water technology, that sort of thing. You would do infrastructure everywhere, but we probably do more infrastructure in Chicago than elsewhere.

The McCormick Place convention centre in Chicago is the largest convention centre in the United States. As a result, this city hosts literally massive trade shows, and there are a number of trade shows that happen every year in Chicago. To a certain extent, those dictate a major focus because you know they’re going to happen, you know that some large numbers of Canadians, often times hundreds, might be coming, and they will have expectations.

ExportWise: Is there a “typical” exporter that would come to seek your assistance?

Darcee Munroe: I’m not sure there is a typical exporter, but just by the nature of the game, we see a lot of medium-sized companies. Small, some, medium mostly. The larger companies, we see them, they sometimes have requests for us, but often times they’re well established in the market and they don’t need the same level of assistance. The medium-sized companies are getting themselves established and still need some assistance from us.

The vast majority of the requests we get are for qualified contacts. So a company’s coming in, they want to sell a good, sell a service, establish a partnership, find a distributor, and they say, “Who can we reach out to? Who can help us do that?” And that’s probably the most value-added service that we can provide, as that’s what we do here – develop broad and deep networks of contacts so we can help our Canadian clients. The smaller companies that we see are really looking more for market information, market intelligence, they’re trying to get a lay of the land: Who are the key players? Where are some of the sector clusters, like agriculture in Wisconsin, for example?

ExportWise: What is a medium-sized company?

Darcee Munroe: Everything you read will have a different definition, but we’re usually looking at something that has over 100 employees, but, for us, usually not more than 250-300. A small company with, say, 100 employees is a good small company but they’re still a small company.

ExportWise: What happens if you’re a very small company? Would they still be able to come to you or do they have to have some export experience before they can come looking for the kind of help that the Consulate can provide?

Darcee Munroe: They can come, but in most cases we refer them back to one of the regional offices in Canada. The role of the regional office is to help Canadian companies prepare for exporting.

ExportWise: So they can get that sort of advice before they leave Canada?

Darcee Munroe: Exactly. Advice, even some training in some cases. In some cases, there’s some funding available, although it’s not usually huge, but it’s for those really inexperienced small companies who need some help before they spend money or invest money or time or effort into exporting and they’re just not ready.

ExportWise: Do you have any tips or advice for would be exporters?

Roy Norton: If you’re talking about small firms that have never exported before, I would say “Be ambitious, but be realistic.” Just because you love your product doesn’t mean that everybody else will. Just because you’re very good at making your product doesn’t mean that you’re equally good at marketing your product.

Darcee Munroe: The one piece of advice I always offer to clients is “Do your homework.” There’s a lot of information available to folks before they have to step outside of their city, their province, their country, and they should do that. They can use the Trade Commissioner Service, in Canada and abroad, to get market intelligence, market information, but they should know what it is they’re looking at doing. They should be developing a market strategy based on a market that they want to enter. Sometimes it’s helpful if folks come down and do a trade show and walk the floor and see what your competition looks like, you see what kind of technology they’re using, so you know your competition before you jump into the market.

Roy Norton: What won’t surprise you, given that I’ve had four postings in the U.S., is that I have a distinct bias in favour of encouraging or seeing Canadian firms look to the U.S. in the first instance because that invariably is where they’re likely to achieve their first success. When I ran the export agency in Ontario, we used to, as a matter of official policy, try to encourage small- and medium-sized firms to look to China and Brazil and India and other places we were trying to break into. But we found that firms that had never exported before anywhere weren’t the least bit interested in going to China or India. They hadn’t cut their teeth on exporting. They didn’t know anything about currency fluctuations. They didn’t know anything about Customs, about different legal systems, and they were invariably interested, as you increased their level of knowledge of what the realities involved really were, in trying to sell into the United States market in the first instance.

Those that succeeded would obviously massively increase their knowledge base, they would along the way probably increase their production capabilities because often times a small firm – Darcee talked about a good-sized small firm of 100 people, but there are small firms of 10 or five that have ambitions to export, too, except they often can’t produce enough to export based upon their current production runs based upon their current staff component, and they have to take a decision to hire an eleventh person or a twelfth person. Well, that’s a 10-per-cent increase in salary costs, or a 20-per-cent increase. These aren’t easy decisions to take, and you kind of make those decisions based on a comfort level that you equip yourself with, that you’re not going to be saddled with an investment that’s going to turn sour and take down your company. It speaks to why these companies are often very, very cautious in the first instance.

But after you’ve successfully exported to the U.S. and you’ve increased the size of your production run having taken on more staff, you’re more bullish about the prospects of being able to sell to India or China, and you’ll get yourself on a trade mission led by a Premier or a federal trade minister and go off to one of those places and be much more confident and certain about your ability to export.

Courtesy of ExportWise, sponsored by Export Development Canada.