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Published January 18 2013

Local businesses having success exporting products worldwide

FARGO - It’s not a building you’re likely to notice as you drive through West Fargo on Main Avenue.

But the small, nondescript brick and metal structure on Sixth Street is home to a North Dakota business that’s gone global.

Roll-A-Ramp, a manufacturer of portable and semi-permanent aluminum ramps, stretches into Australia, Asia, the Middle East, Africa, New Zealand, Panama and an area of Finland just south of the Arctic Circle.

Greg Moll, Roll-A-Ramp global business and sales manager, said the company sends products to about 52 countries. More than half of Roll-A-Ramp’s business is done overseas.

Without it, “we’d be extremely small or nonexistent,” Moll said.

While the reach of this North Dakota business might surprise some, Roll-A-Ramp is not alone in its worldwide reach. North Dakota exports outside the U.S. totaled about $6.4 billion in 2011, said Dean Gorder, executive director of the North Dakota Trade Office.

The trade office is a private nonprofit corporation that was formerly in the state Department of Commerce. Its goal is to promote North Dakota exports of both products and services.

Exports are important to North Dakota, Gorder said.

“We have 700,000 people, and we produce a lot of stuff,” Gorder said “So if we don’t export it – whether it be to Minneapolis, Chicago, New York or Dubai – what do you do with it? We’re a net export state, have been since the day this state was founded. … With such a low population but a very high output, we have to export.”

For the past few years, North Dakota has been among the top 10 states for export growth, Gorder said. In the decade of the 2000s, North Dakota exports grew by 250 percent, compared to about 35 percent for the nation as a whole during that same period, he said.

Farm commodities accounted for about half of the $6.4 billion in state exports in 2011, Gorder said. Some of the rest of that total is agriculture-related, but not all.

“Just from a ballpark number, I would say probably 75 percent of all the exports are tied to ag in some way,” Gorder said.

Fargo-based Legacy Steel Buildings is another North Dakota business with an international reach. It exports pre-engineered steel structures.

Vice President Bruce Engkjer estimated that 25 percent of Legacy Steel’s business in recent years was from exports, with shipments to 100 countries.

Engkjer said exports are “a huge part of our business.”

“It gives us a lot of opportunity to work in a whole litany of different disciplines, from mining to shipping to everything you can imagine,” he said.

Cooperstown-based Posi Lock Puller Inc. has also seen success outside the U.S. The company produces gear and bearing pullers used in vehicle maintenance, agriculture machinery repair, mining and other applications. Its product line includes a machine that can exert

200 tons of pulling power.

Just more than a quarter of Posi Lock Puller’s business in 2012 was exports. Vice president Tamara Somerville said in the next 10 years she’d like to see that number grow to 60 percent.

“We’ve got some pretty aggressive growth plans,” she said.

Exports can be more than just physical goods. At the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, at any given time there are anywhere from 150 to 250 foreign pilot trainees in the school’s aerospace program, Gorder said.

He attributed some of the growth in North Dakota exports to a rising world population and the resulting need for food. The state has also been actively promoting exports, he said.

“We have to pat ourselves on the back a little bit,” he said.

“Gov. (Jack) Dalrymple is the one that really originated this office when he was lieutenant governor, and he chaired the board for several years,” Gorder said. “So it got a lot of attention. And he really drove it.”

Gorder also points to the fact that, when it comes to “all aspects of agriculture,” North Dakota is a “one-stop shop.”

There may be another factor in North Dakota’s favor that’s difficult to put into a spreadsheet: the North Dakota style of doing business.

“People tend to be pretty down to earth,” Gorder said. “I think honesty is still very much a virtue in North Dakota. And it comes through in a lot of these business transactions.

“It doesn’t matter where you go. You go to the grocery store. You go to the gas station. Wherever you go, people are friendly. They’re open. And it’s just a very inviting place to do business.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734