Europe seen as growth hotspot for Minnesota companies

Minnesota exports to Europe fell slightly last year, but not enough to dampen prospects for a region that state officials said Thursday remains one of the most promising trade destinations for the state’s companies.
The Minnesota Trade Office brought business representatives from across Europe to downtown Minneapolis to meet with local business leaders and discuss growth opportunities on both sides of the Atlantic.
Last year, Minnesota companies last year sent $4.6 billion in goods to European countries, down 2 percent from 2014 but roughly on pace with rates during the past half-decade or so. Around $27 billion in exports from the state reached Europe over the past five years, according to state figures.
Despite a strong dollar that has bogged down trade for U.S. companies in the past year, and even as the European economy strains against a global slowdown, state officials say prospects for increased transatlantic export activity by Minnesota businesses remain bright.
“We need to celebrate how much bigger and better Europe has become in just the last few decades,” said Steve Riedel, an international trade representative for the state. “It’s pretty clear what a powerful partner the [European Union] especially is to Minnesota. It’s really quite impressive.”
European countries, particularly in the west-central part of the region, have some of the world’s most sought-after markets. Several of them are widely considered to be among the most business-friendly nations.
Plus, wealth across the region provides a cash-flush customer base and the growth opportunities that come with it, said Jake Slegers, the outgoing chairman of the European Council of American Chambers of Commerce, a network of business advocacy groups operating across Europe.
“[Europe] is a critical source of global profits for U.S. firms,” he said, especially when they lay down roots overseas. “U.S. foreign affiliates in Europe have been agents of growth in virtually every industry they operate in.”
Many marquee Minnesota companies already have outposts and customers in Europe. Maplewood-based 3M Co., Little Canada-based St. Jude Medical, and Medtronic, whose operational headquarters is in Fridley, serve as some of the most prominent ambassadors for the state. But there’s room for smaller companies, too.
Minneapolis-based software and consulting firm MentorMate, founded in 2001 by Swedish immigrant Bjorn Stansvik, is anchored in the Midwest but has gradually expanded its operations into four Bulgarian cities. It has also picked up clients in the United Kingdom, France, Spain and Sweden.
The company now has about 400 employees across the globe, but it still doesn’t have the cachet of a massive multinational. Stansvik said overseas growth comes down to a scrappy approach to building connections and generating interest.
“It would be easier to just ride over to Illinois and get another client there. We can grow plenty in the U.S.,” he said.
But Europe carries extra upside, even if penetrating that marketplace requires more work. By leveraging its expertise in navigating the U.S. market, MentorMate can generate a bigger payoff with customers elsewhere, Stansvik said.
“In Sweden, we can punch a bit above our weight,” he said.
To help companies – especially small and mid-sized outfits – set up shop overseas, the Minnesota Trade Office in 2013 set up an office in Dusseldorf, Germany. The country is the state’s top export market in Europe, and one of its largest foreign investors.
In addition to propelling more local goods into European markets, the office has primed other investments. Riedel declined to give details, but said a “significant transportation machinery manufacturing company” from Germany is now likely to set up shop in Minnesota.
K. John Pournoor, who works in international government affairs and markets for 3M, recognized his company as a high-profile success story in Europe. But he said suppliers of all sizes, and from a range of industries, have a platform for growth.
Several of the highest-demand markets in Europe, as determined by the federal government, align with Minnesota’s strongest industries. European buyers want medical technology and machinery – two strongholds in the state’s manufacturing sector – plus telecom equipment and energy products.
In addition, infrastructure upgrades in high demand in several European countries offer a gateway for Minnesota outfits – companies that produce components for rail systems and roadways, for example – to cash in, Pournoor said.
Renewable energy and water quality are also in focus in Europe, where solar farms dot the southern part of the region and wind farms sit to the north. Aggressive energy investment and renewables goals in Europe’s most developed countries underscore real demand for the equipment, components and technology to achieve them.
“In Europe, it is not a novelty,” Pournoor said. “It’s a strategic part of what Europeans are investing in.”

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