New Orleans companies expanding into exports

When the financial crisis crippled the economy in 2008, Metairie-based Oracle Lighting started looking overseas to broaden its customer base.

The company, which makes LED lighting components for automobiles, already had foreign companies expressing interest in its products after finding Oracle’s online storefront.

“There was nothing but bad news for the economy and we had to look outside the U.S. to grow the company,” President Justin Hartenstein said.

Even though much of the globe was experiencing the same problems, the company was able to find pockets of willing customers and grow its brand beyond the confines of the nation’s borders. More recently, Oracle went on a U.S. Commerce Department-sponsored trade mission to Dubai.

“We’ve already seen some pretty good growth in that area from that,” he said.

Today, about 22 percent of Oracle’s sales come from exports and the company was named Louisiana Exporter of the Year last month by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

“It’s been pretty good the last couple of years,” Hartenstein said.

The company started as a one-man operation in 1999 but began growing more rapidly in 2006. By 2009, it had about 10 workers. Today, it has 21 in Metairie and just opened an office in Houston that employs five people.

Oracle is on track to do $6 million in total sales, up about 30 percent from last year, and has 5,000 individual products, ranging from dashboard instruments and bulb replacements to high-powered lighting for off-road vehicles.

Hartenstein said the only major hurdle was finding distributors that weren’t direct competitors. As long as there aren’t duties and import taxes, it’s not much different from selling domestically, he said.

“Once we learned all the ways to make it easy, we go through the same amount of steps we do for our domestic (sales),” he said.

That’s exactly what New Orleans-based confectioner Sucré is counting on as it seeks to send its chocolate bars, cocoa, praline pecans and other sweets around the world.

“Commerce is becoming very flat,” said Joel Dondis, founder and chief experience officer for Sucré, which has shops on Magazine St. and in Metairie, with another to open soon in the French Quarter.

Sucré started working on getting into exporting about five months ago, and just made a test shipment to Singapore.

With freight forwarders and customs brokers making it easy, shipping its shelf-stable products to Singapore, London or Dubai is well within the company’s reach.

“We’re just going after that business,” he said, noting you can buy a shirt from Milan, Italy, and get it in three days. “It’s just a little more time, that’s the way we look at it.”

Dondis said he is marketing the company as Sucré New Orleans, using the city’s fame and allure to help him sell around the world.

Living in Germany in the 1980s, Dondis would say he was from Louisiana and wouldn’t get much of a reaction. But when he said “New Orleans,” faces brightened and people began talking about food and Mardi Gras.

“It’s known like Paris; it’s known like New York; it’s known like San Francisco .... It’s a center for tastemaking.”

Oracle’s Hartenstein said that once his company took the leap, there’s no reason to turn back.

“As long as there are customers out there that are interested in buying our products and there are distributors who can help us distribute our product without too much trouble, it’s something we’ll continue to do,” he said.