Michael Hoher of the Export Navigator program poses with some of the local products he’s helping to export past B.C.’s borders. Photo: Will Johnson

Helping growing Kootenay businesses export

Provincial pilot project aims to help businesses access new markets

There’s a big difference between selling a product locally and exporting it beyond B.C.’s borders — and a lot of steps a business has to go through before they can be ready to do so.

That’s where Michael Hoher of Community Futures comes in. He’s the Nelson advisor for the provincial pilot project Export Navigator, a program that aims to encourage small businesses to widen their reach and expand into other markets.

“Winging it doesn’t always produce good results,” Hoher told the Star, after showcasing some of his 33 current clients’ successes at a recent Business after Business meeting.

According to Hoher, there are a number of things small businesses might not anticipate before trying to ship their products: how to get through customs, the costs of tariffs, proper labelling, different languages, and whether or not they can reliably produce enough of their product to meet demand.

That’s why the province launched Export Navigator upon learning that only four per cent of B.C.’s businesses export products — down from a national average of 15 per cent. To help with that, Hoher said the government has been proactive in tweaking its approach for different sized operations.

“The province used to have a one size fits all approach, so if you already export to 15 countries and I’m brand new, the resource is just the one thing and it didn’t work for everybody,” he said.

“They’ve now recognized that helping someone get into their first market is different than dealing with someone who’s trying to get into their 16th.”

‘We live in a very small marketplace’

Hoher takes his clients through a workbook, talking about goals and realities, then meets with them personally and answers questions as they come up.

It’s a multi-faceted, long-term process and he’s there to help every step of the way.

“Before it was frustrating, it just wasn’t a good process, but now the province has instituted the advisor job in rural areas, and the intention is to eventually have it all over the Lower Mainland and in Victoria,” he said.

“Now there’s a local person who can meet people where they are in the process.”

Two of his businesses, local hat-maker Lillie & Cohoe and Kaslo Sourdough bakery, have been participating in the program and taking the steps necessary to get approved.

One is aiming to sell hats in the U.S., while the other wants to start exporting pasta. Each needs different advice, and he’s seen that there are education gaps he can fill.

“There is a need for this. The need comes from the fact we live in a very small marketplace, so whether you have flour from Creston or hats from Nelson, you just can’t make a living or employ people on this market size,” he said.

“By necessity, people who produce things here have to think about markets elsewhere.”

He said Calgary and Vancouver are popular, and the Okanagan, but he wants his charges to think bigger — can they go to Europe? Asia? Australia? According to him, none of these are outside the realm to possibility.

‘Why wouldn’t it be helpful?’

Liz Cohoe has been exporting her hats for years, but it’s only since connecting with Hoher that she’s been able to sort out an ongoing issue with shipping her products over the U.S. Canadian border.

“We went through five years wrangling with the Canadian border, and then finally we got it sorted — if we’d had the program earlier it would’ve made for a few less anxious moments,” she said.

With the uncertainty around NAFTA, Cohoe is looking at other markets other than the U.S. she might expand to while also buffing up her presence locally.

“I’m still in the early stage of the program, but in essence anybody who produces goods locally and wants to enter a new market, why wouldn’t it be helpful?” she said.

Chamber of Commerce executive director Tom Thomson agrees. As far as he’s concerned, the more businesses looking to expand, the better.

“This may be in its infancy, but the concept is really good and I think it’s a great opportunity to help small businesses grow into slightly larger businesses.”

Thomson said large operations like Kalesnikoff Lumber already have the infrastructure and contacts set up to sell their products worldwide, but in the past the province hasn’t done enough to help the smaller players who are just getting started.

“Don’t put up roadblocks. Make it comfortable, and when there’s opportunity to do exporting — give someone to walk them through the process, a local advisor who can talk to them and figure out if they’re ready to pursue it or not.”

He thinks the more businesses export, the better the economy will be doing.

“Once you start exporting you might need potentially more employees, more infrastructure, you might need to expand a plant — so there’s building opportunities, some will grow to subdivide and go multi-national,” he said.

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