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Businesses can make tracks for exports

EAGAN, Minn.--If a product dreamed up by an 11-year-old boy and manufactured in a 900-population community known as the Moose Capital of the North can successfully be shipped around the world, other small Minnesota businesses could do the same.

That was the message Monday from Glen Brazier, Mattracks founder and CEO, to a couple of hundred small business officials. At the top of the list of how to replicate his accomplishment: Use federal government programs designed to expand the country's exports.

"Most companies don't know about it," Brazier said of the federal government's desire to help small companies export products.

If Brazier himself had known about the federal program when he began making rubber tracks for all-terrain vehicles and pickup trucks in 1994, he said, Mattracks would be four times the size it is today.

Half of Mattrack's business today comes from 50 foreign countries, after the company turned to the U.S. Commerce Department and other federal agencies to help sell its products.

Because of Mattrack's success, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Monday awarded Brazier its "Faces of Trade Award." The presentation followed a hearing U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar called to promote how federal programs can help small- and medium-sized businesses.

She described her time driving a Mattracks-equipped vehicle on the test course near the company's manufacturing plant near Karlstad, Minn., as "one of my most memorable experiences."

Brazier's 11-year-old son came up with the idea of replacing pickup wheels with tracks in 1992, saying it made sense to drive a truck to a frozen lake, then put tracks on it so an angler easily could get to an ice fishing spot. The company featuring his name was created a couple of years later.

Today, the 40 Karlstad Mattracks employees, along with some workers elsewhere, make rubber tracks for recreation and work uses. Up to 80 percent of the company's sales are for work-related uses, Brazier said, with a major demand in foreign countries. "There are more unimproved transportation systems in other countries."

Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, used Mattracks as an example of how small businesses can grow if they know how to use federal help.

Minnesota exported $31 billion worth of products last year, the senator said, and there are plenty more markets available.

Tony Lorusso of the Minnesota Trade Office said China, India and South America are major opportunities for Minnesota companies, although those gathered for Klobuchar's hearing said Mexico and Canada are the most likely first customers for new exporters.

Rochelle Lipsitz of the federal Foreign Commercial Service said 95 percent of potential customers are outside of the United States and agencies like hers can introduce businesses to foreign customers.

"We will pick you up at the airport and hold your hand," Lipsitz said.

But Tom Wollin of Mattracks said that some of that hand-holding is threatened. He works with the Fargo, N.D., Foreign Commercial Service office and complained that people there are not allowed to travel abroad any more, forcing businesses like his to work with strangers when overseas.

Funding issues remain up in the air, Klobuchar said.

Even if some funding remains in question, Michael Howard of the U.S. Export-Import Bank had good news for businesses: "There is plenty of money out there." Federal loan guarantees are available for many export businesses.

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Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.