By Raymund Lee Flandez
ANNAPOLIS – From Hong Kong to Puerto Rico, foreign companies are buying loads of the rhodium solution made by Joe Lipsitz’s Baltimore plant for use in plating diamond engagement rings.
In its recent fiscal year, Lipsitz’s Cohler Enterprises Inc. raked in $3.7 million in sales, more than half of it in exports.
Cohler is among the 140 small businesses in Maryland that have ventured out internationally through the state’s Export MD program.
This year, more than 50 Maryland companies were given a total of about $200,000 by the state and they in turn, generated more than $3.6 million in foreign export sales.
Although this is just a small part of the state’s total export sales of $4.9 billion, officials said they hope these early partnerships with foreign companies will grow, putting more money in the coffers of Maryland businesses and the state.
“Ultimately, it creates additional economic activity and new jobs,” said Peter O’Neill, trade office director for the Department of Business and Economic Development, which created the program in 1999.
He said the ripple effect is being felt by workers from Baltimore/Washington International Airport to the cargo docks at the state’s ports.
Cohler’s rhodium, which sells for $750 an ounce, represents 98 percent of the company’s total sales. It’s being sold to 19 different countries from a network of distributors; the major one in China.
“That’s where the heart of the business is,” said Lipsitz, although he admits he has never met any of his international customers.
In 1997, Cohler’s export sales accounted only for 10 percent of the company’s business, mainly in domestic exports. But the state’s international export grant program allowed Lipsitz to expand his business scope worldwide. Export sales now account for 62 percent of total sales.
In this Export MD program, trade specialists in about 19 countries help Maryland businesses make contacts in their markets by providing about 500 hours, or about $24,000 worth, of free advice.
“It’s made it easier for us to gather the information and to have confidence to move into this market,” said Ernie Ellis, president of Metalcraft Inc., a Baltimore maker of fire protection systems for the boating market, and another Export MD grantee.
The program has been a good investment for Maryland as well. The rate of return, officials say, is about $34 for every dollar invested. Since 2000, about $530,000 in grants generated more than $18.2 million for the state, according to DBED.
“Programs like these are very helpful for small businesses that are a little hesitant moving into the international arena,” said Ellis, who is in China this week to visit 15 boat owners. “For most businesses, it can be a little overwhelming.”