An Export Service Of Great Import

Despite all the hoopla about the American export boom, thousands of smaller U.S. companies haven't tested the global waters. If you're one of these business owners or entrepreneurs, the first step is often the hardest. Amid a great clutter of government offices, consultants, and middlemen, where do you get the information to begin?

Now, there's an innovative shortcut that could ease some of the confusion. A Boston company called International Strategies is offering an Export Hotline that will fax information to callers--for only the cost of the call. American Telephone & Telegraph, which is eager to promote use of its phone lines, is a co-sponsor, along with other companies that provide export services, such as KPMG Peat Marwick, Berlitz, Delta Air Lines, and DHL. To sign up, call 800 USA-XPORT. The first call is on them.

GLOBAL MENU. Here's why it's such a hot idea. The U.S. government collects information around the world about export opportunities--but can't speedily distribute it to the small and midsize companies that really need it. In the U.S., the Commerce Dept. has a thin presence, and only in major cities. So if you're a would-be exporter, you may get caught up in endless calls trying to locate information. Or you may have to write a letter and wait.

But the Export Hotline scoops up those reports from embassies in Tokyo, Bonn, and other major markets and makes them instantly available. The caller is offered a menu of 68 countries, from Argentina to Zimbabwe, and of 58 industries, from agriculture to woodworking machinery. You also can request country overviews, contacts, and shipping requirements.

So if you, say, punch in 22 for Germany and 25 for electrical components, you get an 18-page report prepared by the American consular office in Munich. Although a year old, the report provides priceless information for someone trying to decide how to sell electronic gizmos to the Germans. This $4 billion market is growing by 10% to 15% a year, the largest end-user is Siemens, and programmable logic devices and BiCMOS (bipolar complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) chips are gaining ground. It offers a list of key contacts. Armed with this information, a company can take the first steps in cracking the market. You can get an equally valuable report about Japan's ceramics market, expected to reach $40 billion a year in sales by 2000.

The hot line's data base has 2,500 such documents and is increasing that by 125 a month, says Abby Shapiro, chief executive of International Strategies. AT&T reports that the service has received more than 70,000 calls since it started in March, from 15,000 people. By a 2-to-1 margin, the country most in demand: Mexico.

DEAD ENDS. Even some sophisticated players are using the hot line. Take Forte Technology, a $5 million-a-year company in Norwood, Mass. It sells computerized moisture-measuring systems in 38 countries, and 75% of its sales are abroad. Yet it was able to use the hot line to secure a $100,000 sale in Czechoslovakia. "Everything started with the hot line," says Rose Murphy, the marketing manager. Her executives also use the hot line to find out about visas and vaccinations.

There are clear limits on what the hot line can do, of course. It is still spotty for some countries. A request for information about Yugoslavia's market for pumps, valves, and compressors, for example, runs into a dead end. And some of the material is dated. The overview of South Korea fails to note that a major presidential election is at hand. Nor can the hot line give you advice about translating your literature or customizing your products.

But if it continues to improve, the hot line could open information spigots for U.S. exporters, just as Japanese trading companies and German banks do for their smaller companies.

      STATE TRADE OFFICES Can be helpful in making contacts, but are being cut back 
      because of budget pressure
      U.S. COMMERCE DEPT. Provides good tips on trade shows and distributors, but is 
      sparse on specific details of markets
      SMALL BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT CENTERS Offer advice on how to export, but lack 
      knowledge of international markets
      MAJOR BANKS Can assist in financing, but can't supply export details. Try U.S. 
      subsidiaries of foreign banks or U.S. regional banks
      DATA: BW