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Taking exporting to the next level

Souris River Canoes seeks to expand market to Europe, Japan

Keith Robinson, who started Souris River Canoes in 1985 along with his wife, Arlene, has been exporting his high-end canoes to the United States for about seven years.

Now the Atikokan, Ontario business owner is examining the feasibility of exporting canoes to Europe and Japan, although he knows it will be a challenge.

He figures it would cost $1,000 to ship one canoe to Europe, when his canoes are only worth $2,700 to $3,300 in the first place.

“It just makes it a little bit more complicated. But it's a good challenge. I'm up for a challenge,” he said.

“That's partly why I'm in this business. I think it's doable. But it's going to take some time to set that up, definitely.”

Robinson currently sells 55 per cent of his products in Wisconsin, Minnesota and other American states. The majority of the other 45 per cent of his business goes to southern Ontario.

“We produce some of the toughest, lightweight Kevlar canoes in North America,” Robinson said. “It seems like the American market is a little bit more open to new products. If they see something good, they embrace it.”

However, shipping and exporting products can be difficult for small business owners, especially for those selling products as unwieldy as canoes, he said..

“It's so hard to ship canoes by common carrier because they get damaged, or it's too expensive,” said Robinson.

“Because our volume is not very high compared to some companies that produce lower end canoes, getting canoes out to California and Florida is difficult.”

Instead, Souris hauls its own canoes on a trailer to both southern Ontario, and its United States distributor, Red Rock Canoes, in Ely, Minnesota. He has a trade broker to fill out the exporting paperwork for his company.

Thanks to the business developed through exporting canoes to the United States Robinson has expanded his operations significantly in the last few years.

He already put up a large building for manufacturing a few years ago, and an increase in sales is spurring him to add even more space this summer.

When examining the possibility of exporting, the first thing a small business needs to do is determine whether there's a foreign market for their product, said Pamela Kanter, a manager with the International Trade Branch of the provincial Ministry of Economic Development and Trade.

Companies should also visit their target market and look for a foreign agent or distributor, she said.

“Going to key trade exhibitions is a great way to start getting your name out there, gaining profile in the market, and establishing contacts,” said Kanter.

“Meeting a customer is always great, but meeting a good agent or distributor can be a critical way to maintain your presence in the market, and have them do a lot of that legwork for you. If it's a good distributor or agent, they have well-establish contacts, and they can get doors open.”

Hiring a good freight forwarder is also critical to reducing shipping costs and making sure the product reaches its destination in a timely fashion, she said.

“They can help you find the most cost-efficient way of shipping your product. Perhaps you can consolidate with another shipment so you're not just sending one thing in a big container.”

The ministry offers a number of services for small and medium-sized businesses looking into the export market, said Kanter.

There are 19 market specialists working at the ministry available for one-on-one consultations with businesses.

Kanter herself specializes in the American and European export markets.

As well, a variety of seminars are offered by  the ministry. For example, a program called New Exporters to Border States (NEBS) is a two-day program where company representatives go on a trip to either Detroit, Michigan, or Buffalo, New York, and visit professionals like border agents and freight forwarders.

The ministry also organizes several trade missions to various countries each year. It also publishes resources such as the Getting Ready to Export Guide.

While finding an export market is a lot of work, it's worth it because the Canadian market is relatively small, said Kanter.

“There's an awful lot of companies that have excellent products. In order to grow their business, they have to look to export business. It's not for everybody, but it can be for a lot of people.”