As a top executive at White Labs Inc., one of Neva Parker’s many jobs is to oversee international trade.
Big companies have entire departments devoted to the topic. “As a small business, it’s a challenge to understand the rules, regulations and nuances that come along with export,” said Parker, director of operations at the 115-employee company.
Yet international trade is important to the private company. White Labs, whose primary business is providing yeast for craft brewers, has set a goal of growing international sales from 10% to 15%.
The business got a couple lucky breaks recently. It as well as 14 other small and medium-sized businesses was recently invited into the MetroConnect program, which will support their international efforts.
The 15 businesses make up the fifth MetroConnect cohort. The World Trade Center San Diego, part of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., runs the program, which will occupy the businesses for the next 18 months.
Companies chosen for the fifth cohort are Amavara, Blue Sky Network LLC, Dynam.AI, Forward Slope Inc., LunaPBC, Mayan Robotics LLC, Modern Times Drinks, MRIaudio Inc., Omni2Max Inc., Semantic AI, Sidus Solutions, TradeSun Inc., Trex Enterprises Corp., Uprise Energy and White Labs. Mayor Kevin Faulconer joined the center in announcing the companies on June 19.
Each company receives a $5,000 grant. Going forward, they will participate seven workshops on international trade issues, get one year’s access to machine translation services provided by Systran, as well as access to a team of mentors chosen by the World Trade Center. Several international airlines with a San Diego presence offer discounted flights.
An Early Win
White Labs benefited from the program early.
The business’ big export destinations are Canada, the Scandinavian countries, Australia and Japan. Yet Australia presented a stumbling block. Sometimes yeast shipments would clear customs easily — but not always. White Labs needed to figure out the reason, since it ships live yeast, a product that becomes less viable the longer it gets stuck in transit.
Transit time for an insulated package is about 72 hours, and White Labs adds a buffer of 48 hours, Parker said.
Through the MetroConnect program, White Labs brought in JAS Worldwide Management Inc., whose expertise includes freight forwarding. “There were a few things we were not quite clear on,” Parker said, adding that JAS helped White Labs check all the boxes.
White Labs’ product is in liquid form, and there tend to be a lot of rules around importing a live product, Parker said.
White Labs ships to roughly 45-50 countries, the executive said, adding that it was able to make its first shipment to mainland China in 2020.
“It is easier to ship beer successfully than ship yeast successfully.”
The company also produces beer, but that is mostly a tool to market its different varieties of brewer’s yeast.
The Value of Mentorship
JPMorgan Chase & Co. as well as Procopio are the two main underwriters for the MetroConnect program.
Dennis Doucette, a partner in the Procopio law firm, has a hands-on role in the program. One of his jobs is mentor.
Mentorships can be formal or they can be informal, the attorney said. One of the more formal situations is a presentation on the European Union’s data privacy law, called GDPR (for General Data Protection Regulation). “A lot of companies think they are not subject to GDPR,” he said.
More informal mentorships can involve simple conversations or introductions. Procopio does 10-20% of its business in Asia or Latin America, Doucette said.
If a company is fortunate, those introductions lead to business. The attorney recalled connecting one small San Diego company to a big Japanese firm interested in buying.
The MetroConnect program has been able to give out $790,000 worth of export grants in its lifetime. The 65 companies taking part have collectively generated a net increase in $85 million in exports while in the program. As a group, the firms have signed 500 new contracts and created 269 new jobs for San Diegans.
Representatives of the World Trade Center said the MetroConnect program builds resilience in addition to trade.
“This global pandemic has accelerated an already rapid pace of change in global trade and production,” said Nikia Clarke, executive director of the World Trade Center San Diego.
“We know global companies are more resilient and more competitive, and so now it is more important than ever for programs like MetroConnect to support small businesses in navigating this complex environment and equip them with the resources to succeed.”