Gondola Train creates international export strategy

WMEP’s program taps into foreign markets as part of future growth

Gondola Train, a manufacturer and distributor of shelf moving systems, has successfully grown its business by focusing almost exclusively on customers in the United States.

Exporting, to this point, has been very limited and carried out with no formal strategic plan.

“We have done a little bit of exporting but most of those customers just found us,” said Heidi Knapp, who leads marketing and sales for Gondola Train.

Wanting to tap into foreign markets as part of a more formal future growth plan, Gondola Train took part in the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership’s ExporTech program.

Gondola Train’s management team attended three sessions of customized training through ExporTech, which works to create a unique international growth strategy. Gondola Train graduated from the program in March.

“When we signed up for ExporTech, I was probably the biggest naysayer,” Gondola Train owner and Chief Financial Officer Pat Walsh said. “Why do we need to do this? We have plenty of business in the United States we could be going after. But the first meeting was an “aha” moment for me. I realized I was too old-school in my thinking.”

ExporTech helps small and midsize companies enter into new markets with a customized export expansion strategy. Program participants learn how exports can dramatically drive growth while identifying hurdles to expansion.

“We learned that there is much opportunity out there that we are missing,” Walsh said.

Gondola Train began operating as a business in 1997 as a provider of systems, rollers and equipment for moving shelving, retail fixtures, commercial equipment, warehouse racking, and office furniture. The company’s name is derived from the shelves used in retail environments to display products, known in the industry as gondola shelving.

Gondola Train currently has 15 employees and is experiencing growing demand for its products.

“Our focus is on moving retail fixtures, racking, and displays,” Walsh said.

Gondola Train’s primary customers include major retailers such as Walmart, Target, Petco and Hy-Vee, along with general contractors, including those who work with fixtures and flooring and need to move shelves so they can perform their work.

Gondola Train mostly serves customers in the United States through its main facility in Potosi in southwestern Wisconsin and a distribution center in Rancho Cordova, California.

Gondola Train has developed an international growth plan that includes an initial focus on Canada and Australia, with the United Kingdom as a longer-term target. The company chose those locations after collaborative research revealed key data that then was inserted into a matrix to reveal markets with the most potential.

Roxanne Baumann, director of global engagement at the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, led Gondola Train through the ExporTech program.

Exporting will allow Gondola Train to diversify the markets it serves and insulate it from economic downturns in the U.S. market, Baumann insisted.

Finding trusted partners in foreign markets is crucial, Gondola Train’s National Marketing Director Mike Spillane said.

“We are very brand protective. We’ve got to find the right partner that’s going to do things the way we want them done,” Spillane said. “In a foreign market, we lose some of that control.”

ExporTech has provided the appropriate tools to validate any potential partner, Spillane said.

Gondola Train is using the U.S. Commercial Service Gold Key matchmaking program that it discovered through ExporTech to export into Canada.

Currently, less than 1 percent of Gondola Train’s revenue stems from exporting. It has set a goal of 25 percent by the end of the third year of its export expansion program.

“We realized if we only focused on sales in the United States we are missing out, so that’s an aggressive number to shoot for,” Walsh said.

The program’s focus on small and midsize companies also makes it relevant for Gondola Train, Spillane said.

“The ExporTech program and the way it is supported with other elements and grants makes it feasible for small companies to do it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gondola Train management plans to travel to targeted foreign markets to locate distributors. Participation in upcoming Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation trade ventures to Canada and Australia is also being considered.

“Gondola Train has a very robust action plan,” Baumann said.

For more information on ExporTech™ and other programs offered by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, go to www.wmep.org.

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