Alabama sends business trade delegation overseas

For the first time in three years, five Alabama-based companies went to Germany to talk trade

Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield, center, led a delegation representing Alabama small businesses on the first trade mission in three years. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Commerce.

After enduring two years of COVID-19-related travel shutdowns and restrictions, the world has put out the, “Yes, we are open,” sign once again. And in September, the Alabama Department of Commerce took advantage by embarking on an overseas trade mission trip for the first time since 2019.

Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield led a delegation that included representatives from five Alabama-based companies on a four-day trip through Germany. The group spent time meeting with business leaders in Munich, then traveled to Augsburg for the E.U.-U.S. Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) Best Practices Workshop.

It was an opportunity to conduct business promotion and explore partnership opportunities the old-fashioned way, by connecting in person rather than through video meetings and a seemingly endless parade of emails.

Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield. Photo by Julie Bennett.

“It was a whole lot better than doing things by Zoom,” Canfield says with a chuckle. “We really enjoyed the opportunity to be back on the road meeting with people face-to-face to talk trade.”

Sure, business transactions and relations continued throughout much of 2020 and 2021, but Canfield says something important was missing in the process. Despite how much the world has become reliant on impersonal technology, Canfield says at some point there still is a need for that personal touch.

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“When we weren’t able to travel as freely internationally during Covid, a lot of virtual trade-related opportunities were created, but it’s just not quite the same,” Canfield says. “When you actually have boots on the ground, you’re able to engage with people on a more personal level. You’re able to talk through issues and have discussions in more meaningful ways. You’re just able to explore opportunities with a greater deal of depth.

“A lot of this is about building trust. And it’s a lot easier to build trust when you’re doing it eyeball to eyeball.”

Germany was a natural choice for the state’s first return to the road because Alabama has had strong ties with the country ever since Mercedes built a manufacturing plant in Vance in the 1990s. Now Germany is one of Alabama’s top trade partners, investing nearly
$10 billion in the state. The connection is so strong that Alabama opened a business development office in Stuttgart in 2019.

So, when the United States Trade Representative office invited the state to participate in the SME workshop in Augsburg — and in turn have Alabama host the event next fall — Canfield says it was obvious that the time had come to travel once again.

The five Alabama companies that participated in the trade mission were Adah International, an industrial engineering and project management services firm; ASHIPA Electric Limited, a company developing power microgrid management software; Bloc Global Group, a company specializing in corporate real estate and infrastructure project delivery; Domestique, an EV hospitality company creating consumable products to fight climate change; and GeneCapture, a biotech company developing portable technology for identifying infections.

“Our trade-mission strategy focuses on SMEs, because large companies have the resources to build trade opportunities on their own,” Canfield says. “These smaller companies don’t have those resources to establish business-to-business meeting opportunities in foreign countries. So, the meetings were opportunities for these SMEs to potentially build a new customer base outside of their natural domestic market and expand their footprint globally.”

ASHIPA Electric CEO Olu Ajala says his company has been interested in exploring the European market for several years, but has had no easy way to make the needed connections. He says the trip enabled him to meet with representatives from several businesses and utility companies and to gain a better understanding of the electricity needs of the region.

ASHIPA Electric CEO Olu Ajala.

“It was a great thing for us, because we were able to get firsthand what the local experiences are with energy and assess the demand for what we provide in that market,” Ajala says. “We met with several businesses in Germany where there is potential for a project together. And we met companies that can be a link not just in Germany, but across the Eurozone.”

GeneCapture CEO Peggy Sammon had a similar experience. Even though her company’s product is still waiting FDA approval, she said the trip enabled her to receive valuable introductions with potential future partners.

“I met with some of the microbiology labs over there and saw how they were handling parts of post-Covid life,” Sammon says. “Two of those have turned into email relationships, and we are discussing how our product might eventually fit into the EU market.

GeneCapture CEO Peggy Sammon.

“It was also very interesting to hear some of the policy discussions on small business support, and how that fits into the big economic picture. It was fascinating to meet with companies in other countries that have similar challenges, but maybe different solutions.”

All of which are the type of things that Sammon and Ajala both say simply could not be readily obtainable without in-person visits and detailed discussions.

“For businesses like ourselves that require private developers who are familiar with the environment we’re looking into, we have to do partnerships,” Ajala says. “And there’s no way to do partnerships without physical interaction.

“Anywhere we go, we want to understand and engage in-person with those who we potentially partner with,” he adds. “We want to go in there, get to know the business community for our sector, and over one or two years build that relationship towards eventually working on a project together. So for us, this trip was just the beginning of building that relationship.”

Canfield remained in Germany for a few extra days after the mission officially ended to meet with Mercedes officials in Stuttgart. He says they discussed the future of electric vehicles and the type of infrastructure that will be needed in terms of battery charging stations.

But by then, Canfield says the most important part of the trip already had been accomplished. Namely, providing both the Department of Commerce and several Alabama companies the chance to stretch their business legs into another country.

“For Commerce, these trips give us an opportunity to engage on a personal level with the local governments and the business community in Germany,” Canfield says. “It allows us to explore not only trade opportunities, but there is a business development aspect of this, too. These kinds of trips often open the door for future investment and job-creating opportunities in companies that might want to come to Alabama one day.

“And for the businesses that went, there continue to be ongoing conversations with some of the contacts they made while in Germany. That is the kind of thing you want to see take place from these trade missions, for these companies to have follow-up discussions after you come home. These trips are all about establishing new relationships, and deepening relationships that we already have.”

Cary Estes is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the December 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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