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Companies encouraged to boost business by looking abroad

NECN: Peter Howe, Boston/Fitchburg) - As New England companies struggle to stay strong in a down economy, officials say a key strategy for many should be to increase their exports abroad -- as Headwall Photonics of Fitchburg has.

Headwall Photonics makes highly adaptible chemical imaging sensors, so sensitive they require clean room manufacturing, so adaptible they're used in everything from aerial surveillance and matching paint colors to inspecting solar panels and dead chickens at poultry processing plants. The devices sell for typically $20,000 to $110,000.

Headwall has just 30 employees at its River Street offices, a former paper company headquarters. So you might be surprised to find out how far way they've found customers -- Spain, the rest of Europe, Japan, and other countries around the world. In fact, over the last five years, Headwall's increased its share of revenues from exporting from 20 percent to 50 percent. That led to the company winning a Massachusetts Alliance for International Business "trade achievement" award. (The company name comes from the headwall at Tuckerman's Ravine in New Hampshire -- company co founders David Bannon and Larry Barstow's reference to the steep and exciting climb of starting a small business

Headwall Photonics' growing success exporting is exactly what the U.S. Export-Import Bank and other official hope more businesses will pursue. At a Boston event Tuesday morning at the Seaport World Trade Center, Massachusetts

governor Deval Patrick and U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire urged more businesses to take advantage of government efforts like the bank promoting exports, efforts that are promoted through .

"The economy is truly global, and exporting is essential to getting this economy growing again, to helping your businesses expand, and to creating good jobs,'' Shaheen said.

Export-Import Bank chairman Fred Hochberg said, "For our economy to rebound and to grow and the create the kind of job growth and the kind of economic security, we're going to have to rely more and more on exporting. Only 1 percent of U.S. companies actually export -- 1 percent.''

And, as Shaheen told conference attendees, "Ninety-five percent of your potential customers are outside of the United States."

Massachusetts, Patrick said, has been posting some big numbers: $28.4 exported by 8,000 companies last year. Twenty-eight percent of all Massachusetts manufacturing jobs depend on exporting. Still, Patrick said, "We need to continue to cultivate the export spirit in the commonwealth.''

Headwall Photonics' Barstow said state officials were very helpful in assisting Headwall in mastering the complexities of winning licenses to export products abroad. "The people brought us up to speed and showed us really what was required.'' But from his perspective, he'd love more help and clearer rules from the U.S. State and Commerce departments authorizing sales of his products abroad, especially those that arguably have military applications. "We face a lof of competition abroad, and we have definitely lost business because of the time it has taken to get export approvals,'' Barstow said.