Omaha-Council Bluffs maintained its spot in the lower half of the nation's Top 100 metro-area exporters in 2012, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, although global trade is accounting for a greater share of economic activity.
The metro area ranked 65th among the nation's 100 largest exporters, the report said, same as in the 2010 report. Nebraska as a whole ranked in the bottom third of states, at 35th. Iowa ranked 22nd.
The share of economic activity generated by exports is expanding, the report said. Last year, the Omaha metro area generated $4.6 billion of exports, accounting for 10.1 percent of gross economic output, almost double the percentage share from about 10 years earlier.
“Exports are important to Greater Omaha's economy,” said Marisa Ring, managing director of international business development at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. “As companies expand into international markets, the business grows, creating new jobs and investment in the Greater Omaha area.”
The report said agricultural commodities account for 25 percent of state exports, followed by machinery for ag, construction and mining at 8 percent; chemicals at 7 percent; meat and poultry at 6 percent; and freight and transport services also at 6 percent.
Brookings, a Washington, D.C.-based research and public policy advocate, said the Omaha metro area accounts for 27 percent of state exports, and Lincoln nabs 15 percent.
Rural areas, large overseas sellers of agricultural products, account for 56 percent of state exports, the report says.
Omaha also has a foreign trade zone to aid metro-area exports. FTZs are areas authorized by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to handle goods under relaxed conditions. An example, said Terry McMullen, president of the trade zone's operating company, is an Omaha-based distributor of Japanese-made firearms.
The FTZ, he said, allows the company to bring the guns in from Japan and store them in the high-security warehouse without paying import tariffs on them until they are exported to paying customers in Europe.
That saves companies money by not requiring the payment of the tariffs until the goods in question have been sold, McMullen said. Some exporters, he said, save hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.
“The idea is to maximize foreign trade, not tariff collection,” McMullen, president of Cargo Zone LLC, said of the idea behind trade zones.
The five largest metro-area exporters last year, Brookings said, were Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Seattle. They all dwarf Omaha-Council Bluffs and its $4.6 billion of exports; the fifth city, Seattle, clocked in with $35 billion, almost 10 times more.
“Smaller cities are going to have smaller export numbers,” conceded Brookings researcher Nick Marchio. “But most cities can improve the share of gross product from exports.”
Financial services, Marchio said, are also a leading Omaha-area export. The city is home to PayPal, the unit of eBay Inc. that is the largest online money transfer business.
But agriculture and mining machinery exports are the leader, after ag products. They accounted for almost $200 million in additional metro-area exports since 2009. Valmont Industries and Lindsay Manufacturing, both in Omaha, manufacture agricultural irrigation equipment and have made big export efforts.
So has Global Industries, based in Grand Island, with branches in Albion and Omaha. The maker of silos, grain bins and other farm products has more than doubled exports since 2001, said Doug Fargo, the company's chief financial officer.
“Exports are a large part of our business and growing all the time,” Fargo said. “We will always support our domestic customers, but the future is international.”
Fargo said the privately owned employer of about 600 people sells in about 50 countries worldwide. He said the United States is considered the badge of quality worldwide for grain storage, with Nebraska manufacturers ranking even a notch above that on the status totem pole.
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