RICHMOND -- The Year of Trade, Gov. Gerald L. Baliles' initiative to promote Virginia overseas, was a big success, in part because of Baliles' direct involvement, state business executives say.
"I'd say what the governor has done, with the efforts he's made, has helped us tremendously," said J. Ed Ramsey of Taylor-Ramsey Corp., a Lynchburg -lumber exporter.
"The whole spirit of the governor's program has been beneficial," said Karen Freeze, director of public relations for Prince Michel Vineyards. "This is definitely in the long-range plans of the wine industry."
In his State of the Commonwealth address to the General Assembly in January, Baliles said 6 percent of small businesses in the state were involved in exports. He said it was time for Virginia to "build a goal-oriented strategy for international trade and development."
He announced a number of steps in that direction, including a reinvigorated international trade office, and later in the year made three visits himself abroad -- one to Europe and two to the Far East -- to promote Virginia's exports and the state's resources for foreign companies in search of a U.S. site.
The Year of Trade program has shown direct benefits, Ramsey and Freeze agreed, as state-operated offices overseas actively sell the products of Virginia.
Earlier this month, West Germany's Lufthansa Airlines began serving a Prince Michel wine made exclusively for the firm by the Shenandoah Valley winery. A Riesling, it is the first state-made wine to go on international flights.
"It's really quite an honor," Freeze said. "This is the type of project that will ultimately give the industry credibility."
As for lumber, Baliles, during a 17-day October visit to Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, met with several officials of companies that have ordered Ramsey's products.
"That has a tremendous impact on our customers," said Ramsey, whose company exports up to 200 containers a month for 40 percent of its sales. "It creates a better atmosphere for them to do business with us."
The overseas trade offices "have taken the time to know our forest products and they have done a good job promoting those products," Ramsey said.
"I think they are very interested in the future of Virginia wines as an export item," Freeze said.
Baliles and his agricultural marketing staff also have worked to expand the state's poultry business in the Far East, including sales of state-grown and processed chicken feet and chicken franks.
Rocco Farm Foods Inc. of Edinburg exports nine containers of chicken franks monthly to Hong Kong, up from two to three containers a month five years ago, said John Ligon, director of the international trade office.
"We've tried to develop individual markets for the different poultry companies," Ligon said. "It's kind of specialized in packaging to meet a particular demand."
Even indirectly, Year of Trade activities have helped, said Louis M. Lawrence Jr., president of Industrial Alloy Fabricators Inc. of Richmond. Lawrence's company recently sold in China a device that removes methanol from petroleum. After making initial contacts with officials in Beijing, Lawrence went to New York to meet with a Chinese delegation.
"I went there and pointed out that our state was very much interested in doing business with them, the fact that the governor's office and the international development group were pushing very hard to break in with them," he said. "I just kind of used that as part of our sales pitch."
Other Virginia companies have been successful in finding overseas customers for coal-mining equipment and microprocessor power supplies, among manufactured items.
Foreign-based companies coming into the state include San J International, a Japanese firm building a $9 million brewing plant for soy sauce near Richmond.
For some overseas business, what goes around comes around. Ray Gignac, president of Engineering Design and Sales Inc. of Danville, said his company backed into a European export deal when it sold a supply unit that eventually could find its way into medical equipment used in the United States to help handicapped people use stairs.
"We weren't looking to export to Europe," Gignac said. "We were looking to have people put our products into their products."
For people in business, meantime, the Year of Trade is not over when Dec. 31 rolls around. Once the state has helped to make contacts, private initiative takes over.
Baliles said when he announced the program that "to yield results these efforts will require a sustained commitment over a period of years." The business leaders are ready.
"We hope to get on some other airlines," Freeze said of her winery.
Lawrence said more deals with China may be in the offing for his firm because "we did this first job with them and they were very pleased with it. They indicated we will have the opportunity to do business again.'