Helsel Lumber

When Helsel Lumber, which now exports its products around the world, first came to the Saint Francis Small Business Development Center (SBDC), its sales were entirely domestic and beginning to decline. The owners of the 81-year old Blair County company recognized the potential demand in the international market for their hardwoods, but they had no experience in direct exporting and needed help getting started.

Since its first meeting with the Small Business Development Center, Helsel has doubled its work force and grown its annual export sales from zero to nearly $3.5 million. The company has received numerous awards and citations for its achievements, and was named the Small Business Administration's 2007 Exporter of the Year for the mid-Atlantic region.

At the outset, the Saint Francis SBDC consultants worked with James Burger, Helsel vice president, to determine the best entry point, researching hardwood markets in Canada and several European countries. Helsel specializes in Pennsylvania hardwoods and sells lumber cut to size, rough lumber, and finished wood products such as flooring and paneling.

In addition to finding potential hardwood buyers and trade expos, the consultants analyzed Helsel's website and brochures — key marketing material for establishing credibility with long distance customers — and found a grant to have them redesigned.

Helsel's overseas sales breakthrough, a $52,000 order from a leading German wood wholesaler, was the result of leads that a 2003 SBDC-sponsored European trade mission generated for the firm. In the two years since that first order, the German company has increased its orders exponentially: Helsel sold $1.2 million of finished Pennsylvania cherry in Germany last year and Burger expects the figure to be higher in 2007.

To meet the increased production demands from Germany, Helsel added a second shift and 20 employees. Leads from the Small Business Development Centers trade mission to Europe also led to sales in the U.K. and Spain, which have been growing steadily for the past three years.

“There’s a logical progression to your choice of international markets,” says Ed Huttenhower, director of the Saint Francis University Small Business Development Center. According to Huttenhower, it is usually best to start exporting within this hemisphere and then move to Europe. “With that experience,” he explains, “you are ready to pursue more distant markets in China and Asia.”

Ready and eager to take that next step, Jim Burger wanted to test the Chinese market for Helsel's products. The Saint Francis SBDC consultant referred him to the Saint Vincent College Small Business Development Center, which has developed particular expertise in China and, coincidentally, was organizing a trade mission to several Chinese cities.

“China has really opened up to smaller firms since signing the WTO agreement,” says Jim Kunkel, director of the Saint Vincent Small Business Development Center. “The opportunity is there.” He explained that the Small Business Development Centers effectively lower the hurdles for companies through in-depth research, culturally attuned marketing, financing assistance, and trade missions.

To make sure the trade mission would be productive for Helsel, Sha Zhao, the Saint Vincent SBDC's Mandarin-speaking market analyst, conferred with Burger over a period of months to research potential customers and to translate the firm's promotional material. During the November 2004 mission to four Chinese cities, Zhao gathered promising leads and evaluated potential sales agents. Once home, she reviewed all the leads with Burger and was able to recommend a good sales agent.

Three months later Helsel filled its first order to China with rough lumber valued at $40, 000. The firm's sales have since ballooned and, by the end of 2006, Helsel had shipped more than $2 million worth of lumber to China.

The success of Helsel Lumber of Blue Knob, Blair County, in finding overseas customers, increasing sales, and creating jobs underscores the effectiveness of the Small Business Development Centers. “We would not be where we are today without the SBDC,” says Jim Burger. “They have been just super and made it all possible.”

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Jim Burger, Vice President of Helsel Lumber.