From indestructible shoelaces to the opulent, metal fixtures inside private passenger jets, Rhode Island is exporting again.
After overseas sales dwindled to a four-year low in recession-plagued 2009, Ocean State companies last year exported $2.3 billion worth of goods, a 53 percent two-year increase, according to figures from the U.S. Commerce Department’s International Trade Administration.
“I have obtained new business and the economy has picked up,” said Cheryl Merchant, CEO of Cumberland textile manufacturer Hope Global, which has boosted its international sales by making shoelaces for Asian boot-makers.
The rebound in exports has provided a reason for optimism in a state where economic improvement has been otherwise slow since the downturn.
“There is a big focus on ‘Made in the USA’: companies are recognizing they can compete nationally by making things here,” said Ray Thomas, associate director of the Chafee Center for International Business/World Trade Center Rhode Island at Bryant University in Smithfield. “In Rhode Island, we have had some good pockets of success in traditional industries like textile and jewelry that people thought were long gone.”
In addition to the innovative spirit of local manufacturers, Thomas pointed to the inexpensive dollar and, in Rhode Island specifically, improved infrastructure at local ports contributing to the rebound in sales outside the country.
“We have improved our position competitively compared with other states and have had a better environment,” Thomas said.
The Chafee Center is also trying to help with students out studying international demand to find untapped foreign markets for interested Rhode Island companies.
For the sixth-straight year, scrap and waste shipments led Rhode Island exports. Since 2009, waste and scrap shipments from the state have nearly doubled, to $695 million. They now represent 30 percent of all exports from the state.
But as Thomas points out, Rhode Island has also increased its exports in other areas, such as primary metal manufacturing, which more than quadrupled from 2009 to 2011, and chemical exports, which doubled over the same period.
“Everyone always points to waste and scrap metal, but primary metals, manufactured commodities and machinery all increased too,” Thomas said, adding that the statistics don’t capture products, like the screws at Pilgrim Screw Corp. in Providence, that are made in Rhode Island and then exported as part of larger orders assembled in other states.
Of course, even with the recent gains, Rhode Island’s export volume is still relatively meager compared with its New England neighbors.
Massachusetts’ 2011 exports were valued at $23.6 billion, while Connecticut shipped $16.2 billion worth of goods out of the country.
Even rural Maine and New Hampshire, which have only slightly larger populations than Rhode Island, export more: $3.5 billion and $4.3 billion respectively. Both of those states, like Rhode Island, saw their exports increase by more than 40 percent from 2009 to last year.
And Vermont, with 425,000 fewer residents, exported $4.3 billion in goods last year, up 34 percent from two years ago.
One of the companies that jumped into the international market in recent years is Tanury Industries in Lincoln, a precision metal plating and coating company that finishes pieces for jewelry, medical devices, electronics and airplanes.
Tanury entered the luxury aviation market in 1999, but demand for jewelry-grade metal finishes on aircraft fixtures has increasingly moved overseas.
So three years ago Tanury started establishing a presence in Europe, where most of the aircraft for Russian and Middle Eastern clients are customized, and has seen its foreign sales expand rapidly.
In a recent project involving a royal family, a Boeing 737 was taken apart in Germany and thousands of its pieces shipped to Lincoln, where Tanury plated them and shipped them back to Germany for the aircraft to be reassembled.
“In the last two years we [did] more jobs in Europe and the Middle East,” said Thomas Tanury, chairman of Tanury Industries. “Last year our European business doubled and this year we are doing a trade show in Dubai.”
Reflecting the business companies such as Tanury are doing in Europe, Germany has become the destination with the second-highest value of Rhode Island exports in the world, coming in behind long-standing leader Canada.
Following Canada and Germany, the countries importing the most from Rhode Island are Mexico, Turkey and China.
A 129-year-old textile manufacturer, Hope Global last September won a contract to make newly engineered, super-durable shoelaces for Redwing boots, which are put together in China.
Hope Global CEO Merchant said exports now make up approximately 20 percent of the company’s business and she credited the rebounding economy, more than anything else, for increased exports.
“Like everyone else, we [cut costs] and then as the economy starts to climb, you are much leaner and more profitable,” Merchant said. “I have now started to put in more resources and am hiring.” •