Weaker dollar, sluggish demand spur Chattanooga's exports

Weaker dollar, sluggish demand spur Chattanooga's exports

August 21st, 2011 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Sparks fly as Terry Barnes grinds a welding joint on a batch tower, part of an asphalt plant being manufactured at Aztec Industries Thursday morning for shipment to Columbia. Aztec produces paving equipment to be shipped overseas, part of a growing trend among local companies to boost export sales.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Top export counties in Tennessee

Top export counties in Tennessee

For the asphalt equipment maker Astec Industries, the road to prosperity is increasingly being paved outside of the United States.

The Chattanooga-based manufacturer has more than tripled its share of sales from exports over the past five years, growing exports in the second quarter to nearly 44 percent of all sales.

"We realized four or five years ago that for us to truly grow we had to look internationally," said Ben Brock, the president of Astec Inc., who has traveled to 44 countries selling Astec equipment and partnerships since 2006. "Our goal is that anywhere that the sun is up, people in our industry are talking about Astec," he said

Astec has grown its international sales staff from seven to 36 in the past five years "and we're adding about one more a month," Brock said.

With the U.S. recovery still sputtering and a weaker dollar making American-made goods relatively cheaper, a growing number of Chattanooga businesses are looking beyond the domestic market for new sales.

"Dynamo of Dixie"

Among Tennessee's 95 counties, Hamilton County trails only Memphis' Shelby County for the most businesses exporting goods, according to a new study of Tennessee trade by the Business and Economic Research Center at Middle Tennessee State University. Dr. Steven Livingston, the editor of Global Commerce who conducted the study, said exports from 188 businesses in Hamilton County employ at least 10,544 local workers.

"Tennessee has three big manufacturing sectors - automotive, chemical and medical equipment - which are all big export sectors," Livingston said. "I think you can expect that to continue to grow."

In the 1960s, the number of exporting manufacturers in Tennessee was only a few dozen and comprised less than a couple of pages of the federal listing of exporting firms. Today, Tennessee boasts 6,463 businesses that export their goods or services, Livingston said.

Across the state, there are exporters in all but Bledsoe, Hancock, Lake and Van Buren counties in Tennessee. Livingston said Chattanooga's manufacturing tradition, which earned the Scenic City the moniker the "Dynamo of Dixie" a century ago, has kept export activity ahead of bigger cities such as Nashville and Knoxville.

Balance of payments

U.S. exports declined 2.3 percent in June to $170.9 billion - the biggest drop in more than two years - and fears of a global slowdown could limit export sales further.

American consumers also continue to import more goods than businesses ship overseas, creating a trade deficit expected this year to top $575 billion, or 15 percent more than the 2010 imbalance, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Despite the nationwide drop in exports in the past couple of months, however, many Chattanooga companies expect to continue to grow their overseas sales.

"Obviously, the currency situation with the dollar has been helpful," Miller Industries CEO Jeff Badgley said last week after reporting a 16 percent jump in export sales of its towing equipment this spring. "We continue to see a strong desire for our innovative products in Europe, and we're seeing some pickup in areas like Japan."

Even smaller companies are boosting export sales. Mohawk Canoes, a Chattanooga-based maker of recreational canoes, will load a container of nearly 40 boats for shipment to Germany this week.

"We make a higher-end canoe that serves a kind of niche market so people tend to find us, no matter where they are in the world," said Greg McCourt, who acquired the business five years ago. "Exports are about 15 percent of our sales now, but like most businesses we'd like to see that grow."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.

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