Overseas help dries up

Unless Congress acts soon, most small Montana businesses will be on their own if they want to sell their products overseas.

The Montana International Marketing Assistance Program is a reimbursement grant created with funds from the Small Business Administration and designed to make entering a foreign market easier and more affordable for small companies. However, the three-year pilot program is set to end Sept. 30 unless Congress renews the funding as part of the federal budget.

"It's been wildly successful," says Lonie Stimac of the Montana Department of Commerce. "In the first year we saw a return on investment of 4,100 percent."

IMAP is a rebranding of the State Trade and Export Promotion, a three-year trade and export program offered by the federal government to help small businesses expand into new markets. All 50 states were eligible to apply for some of the roughly $30 million offered each year from the Small Business Administration. Once awarded, the states were required to contribute a 25 or 35 percent match to what funds they received.

In its first year, Stimac says Montana received $244,567 and contributed $117,993 in the form of two state employees to administer the program. Thirty firms participated and reported $14.6 million in sales.

The program was created as part of the state's larger effort to get local businesses and products into international markets. The reimbursement grant covered half the cost for a business to go to an international trade show, translate their materials into another language or do market research. To be eligible companies had to have less than 500 employees, show a profit, exist for at least a year and provide a plan for exporting.

"What we've heard anecdotally is that without this program a lot of companies that have gone abroad and have used this fund, in part ... would not have done so," says Carey Hester, director of the U.S. Export Assistance Center of Missoula. "If this goes away I think we'll find a lot less activity when we look at the number of firms looking to go abroad to grow their business."

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