MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) -- New Hampshire led the nation in export growth last year, but businesses and officials involved in exports said Thursday there is still a lot of untapped potential in the state and throughout the country.
Testimony at a U.S. Senate committee hearing in Manchester emphasized that exports are key to the survival of small businesses.
"If your company is not global, it is going to be tougher to survive the ever-competitive marketplace," said Grace Preston, international sales manager for Secure Care Products, which provides devices to keep people from wandering out of nursing homes and protecting infants from being abducted from maternity wards.
Preston said 6 percent of the Concord-based company's revenue in 2010 alone came from partnerships with Ireland and Australia, and it is working on sales in Saudi Arabia.
Representatives from the Small Business Administration, the United States Commercial Service and other agencies said they are working hard to help simplify regulations and requirements for businesses interested in exporting. But they agreed the system can be daunting for businesses new to the process and said they want to work more toward a "one-stop shopping" approach for them.
"The little guy is just stunned," said Richard Friedman, a member of the President's Export Council.
One big problem, he said, is getting visas for people from overseas to be trained to get the product up and running in their home country. There are delays for some, and others can't come at all.
New Hampshire Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte hosted the hearing before the Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship at the University of New Hampshire-Manchester. It fell on a day when the Commerce Department reported that exports dropped 2.3 percent to $170.9 billion, the biggest decline in more than two years.
The senators said that while 95 percent of the world's customers live overseas, only 1 percent of small businesses sell their products in foreign markets.
"It's imperative that we take a pro-growth approach to helping businesses grow and hire. That includes eliminating onerous regulations and mandates and opening markets around the world for American businesses, especially small businesses, which comprise over 96 percent of all New Hampshire firms," Ayotte said.
The total value of exports from New Hampshire increased 43 percent in 2010 over 2009 to a record $4.4 billion — the highest in the nation. It's exports for the first five months of 2011 were 12 percent higher than the same months of 2010.
"Your state is truly leading the way," said Marie Johns, deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration.
Shaheen said that while the state is doing well, "we have the potential to do even better."
One of the reasons for the success is that state and federal agencies have partnered well to assist small businesses, said Dawn Wivell, former director of the New Hampshire International Trade Resource Center. Other states have not learned to do the same, she said, adding that some of New Hampshire's small businesses would not be around if they did not get involved in international sales.
"I think there has to be some kind of incentive, mandate, directive," she said about state government agencies working with local businesses on encouraging exports.
But even with the support in New Hampshire, recent state budget cuts have left the center with a staff of one, and no travel budget for overseas trade missions, Wivell said. There also have been cuts to overseas staff positions assisting states. "The capacity to keep up with the ever growing demand is a problem."
Tom Moulton, president of Sleepnet Corp. in Hampton, which makes masks for sleep apnea sufferers, said that for the first time he's begun to source some components for his product in Asia to stay competitive.
"Unfortunately, over the recent decades America has lost its competitive edge and is on a continuing downward slide," he said. "We have literally given our technology manufacturing to others. It is sinful."
His advice on how the government can help manufacturers: "Get involved and stay out of the way."