Global Strategies for Growth:
The Strategic Export Process

Gondola Train, a manufacturer and distributor of shelf moving systems, has successfully grown its business by focusing almost exclusively on customers in the United States.

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Exporting, to this point, has been very limited and carried out with no formal strategic plan and mainly focused on renting products to customers in Canada.

“We have done a little bit of exporting but most of those customers just found us,” said Heidi Knapp, who leads marketing and sales for Gondola Train.

Wanting to tap into foreign markets as part of a more formal future growth plan, Gondola Train took part in the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership’s ExporTech™ program as a way of becoming more proactive in exporting its products.

Gondola Train’s management team attended three sessions of customized training through ExporTech™, which works to create a unique international growth strategy. Gondola Train graduated from the program in March.

“When we signed up for ExporTech™, I was probably the biggest naysayer,” Gondola Train owner and Chief Financial Officer Pat Walsh said. “Why do we need to do this? We have plenty of business in the United States we could be going after. But the first meeting was an “aha” moment for me. I realized I was too old-school in my thinking.”

Pat Walsh, Owner and Chief Financial Officer

Pat Walsh, Owner and Chief Financial Officer

ExporTech™ helps small and midsize companies tap into new markets with a customized export expansion strategy. Program participants, who range from first-time exporters to experienced exporters, learn how exports can dramatically drive growth while identifying hurdles to expansion.

“Through ExporTech™, we learned that there is so much opportunity out there that we are missing,” Walsh said. “We know that if we don’t expand our horizons and position ourselves for future international growth, we are overlooking great business opportunities.”

Gondola Train’s roots are traced to Ireland and date to 1913.

“My husband’s grandfather came over from Ireland and he had a very entrepreneurial spirit,” Walsh said. “He started a general store, selling everything from tractors and tractor tires to sewing needles, seed and grain, groceries, and even sheering sheep.” 

The store later morphed into an Ace Hardware location.

As part of being a successful Ace Hardware dealer, it was recommended that the store move its shelving every few years.

“The first time we did that we took all the product off the shelf, disassembled the shelving, moved it to a new location and then rebuilt it,” Walsh said. “After doing that one time we knew we never wanted to do it again and that there had to be a more efficient way to move the shelving.  That’s how Gondola Train came into being.”

Gondola Train website with introductory video.

After considerable thought and a variety of designs, the business developed its simple to use original rollers system that goes underneath shelving so that it can be moved. 

“A fully merchandised row can be moved all at one time,” Walsh said.

Gondola Train began operating as a business in 1997 as a provider of systems, rollers and equipment for moving shelving, retail fixtures, commercial equipment, warehouse racking, and office furniture.

The company’s name is derived from the shelves used in retail environments to display products, known in the industry as Gondola shelving.

Gondola being repositioned

“As the Gondola shelving was moving along, it looked like a long train. And that’s where we got the name,” Walsh explained.

Gondola Train currently has 15 employees and is experiencing growing demand for its products.

“Our focus is on moving retail fixtures, racking, and displays,” Gondola Train’s National Marketing Director Mike Spillane said.

Gondola Train’s primary customers include major retailers such as Walmart, Target, Petco and Hy-Vee, along with general contractors, including those who work with fixtures and flooring and need to move shelves so they can perform their work.

“We market directly to contractors and directly to retailers that have their own internal construction teams,” Spillane explained.

Retailers’ desire to continually enhance the customer shopping experience is generating business for Gondola Train, he said.

“They are competing against the online folks out there and it’s kind of nice for us,” Spillane said. “When one of them makes a change, another follows. When Walmart does a remodel, then Target is going to do a remodel. They want to make it a better customer journey.”

Some of the hardware cooperatives change with the seasons, while major retailers are constantly tweaking their setups.

“Target, for example, has two or three different levels of projects, from a pharmaceutical change to a full-blown reset,” Spillane said. “Walmart tackles about 500 stores each year.”

Mike Spillane, National Marketing Director
Heidi Knapp, Marketing & Sales

Major retailers typically remodel their stores every five to seven years, according to Walsh.

Gondola Train mainly serves customers in the United States through its main facility in Potosi in southwestern Wisconsin and a distribution center in Rancho Cordova, California. It also keeps units in the warehouses of cooperatives such as Orgill, Do it Best, Ace Hardware, and True Value, so that customers don’t have to pay freight costs each time.

Gondola Train has developed an international growth plan that includes an initial focus on Canada and Australia, with the United Kingdom as a longer-term target. The company chose the markets after collaborative research revealed key data that then was inserted into a matrix to reveal markets with the most potential.

Roxanne Baumann, director of global engagement at the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, led Gondola Train through the ExporTech™ program.

“She’s amazing and there to help you every step of the way,” Walsh said. “She has so much energy.”

Baumann’s encouragement proved to be vital.

“She really wants to see our company succeed,” Knapp said. “She’s been so supportive. She’s like our own cheerleader.”

Exporting will allow Gondola Train to diversify the markets it serves and insulate it from economic downturns in the U.S. market, Baumann insisted.

Gondola Train’s management team has “an intense thirst for learning and understanding” the strategy behind exporting, Baumann said.

“It was incredible to watch them assimilate what they learned,” she said.

Networking through ExporTech™ already has proven to be a key benefit for Gondola Train and has led to new partnerships.

“ExporTech™ opened up a lot of connections to other Wisconsin-based companies for us that we are reaching out to and partnering with that we didn’t know how to easily access before,” Spillane said.

“The networking that came out of ExporTech™ is just phenomenal,” Knapp said. “It’s never a sales pitch. They are generally there to help us succeed. They give us suggestions and guidance. We’ve had a several people come into our warehouse since ExporTech™ to discuss logistics. There’s so much about international logistics that we didn’t know. It’s been a very positive and knowledgeable experience with ExporTech™.”

Overall, the largest part of Gondola Train’s business stems more from renting, rather than selling, its products to customers. Through its rental program, once a product is returned to Gondola Train, it is cleaned, maintained and conditioned at the company’s facilities.

Future exporting will be more focused on the sale of its products.

“Initially, we will be selling but we are open to having distribution centers in foreign markets that can service the product,” Walsh said. “If we rent, the products have to be completely refurbished and cleaned after each rental. Right now, for logistics purposes, we are just focusing on sales for exporting.”

Finding trusted partners in foreign markets is crucial, Spillane said.

“We are very brand protective. We’ve got to find the right partner that’s going to do things the way we want them done,” Spillane said. “In a foreign market, we lose some of that control. That’s why our first impulse is to sell product. We will definitely entertain rental programs but not until we get that right partner.”

ExporTech™ has provided the appropriate tools to validate any potential partner, Spillane said.

Gondola Train first considered expanding its exporting efforts after the recent introduction of its new Speed Skate line.

“With our new Speed Skate product, we felt it was the right time to pursue that,” Spillane said. “It’s a product we felt we could cost-effectively deliver into those foreign markets. Freight wouldn’t be consuming the entire cost of the project.”

The Speed Skate line is more lightweight than its traditional products and can be used to move gondola shelving, counters, refrigeration units, pallets, wall units and wooden crates, among other applications.

Through ExporTech™, Gondola Train began developing a list of foreign markets where it feels it can successfully launch an exporting program.

“We came up with Canada first, because of its close proximity and we have relationships there already,” Knapp said.

Gondola Train is using the U.S. Commercial Service Gold Key matchmaking program that it discovered through ExporTech™ to export into Canada.

“We also are currently in the process of doing an in-country assessment for Australia and our third market, down the line, will be the United Kingdom,” Knapp said.

Currently, less than 1 percent of Gondola Train’s revenue stems from exporting. It has set a goal of 25 percent by the end of the third year of its export expansion program.

“We realized if we only focused on sales in the United States we are missing out, so that’s an aggressive number to shoot for,” Walsh said.

Another reason for ambitious target is to ensure the sustainability of the exporting program.

“It has to warrant the effort,” Spillane said.

Spillane expressed confidence in the ExporTech™ program.

“Everything we learned in the program we have validated with first-hand experience,” Spillane said. “We didn’t have to be forced to buy into it because it became clear as day. It was very transparent. We weren’t exposed to any information we didn’t think was relevant.”

The program’s focus on small and midsize companies also makes it relevant for Gondola Train, Spillane said.

“The ExporTech™ program and the way it is supported with other elements and grants makes it feasible for small companies to do it,” he said.

Projects tied to Gondola Train’s export expansion include using grant funds to convert a portion of its website to French to serve French-speaking Canadian customers.

The positive experience with ExporTech™ is leading to other projects between Gondola Train and the WMEP, including the performance of an ISO 9001:2015 GAP analysis, which will measure the company’s current quality management system against the requirements of the ISO:9001 standard. This international standard can open additional markets for companies looking to grow.

Meanwhile, Gondola Train management plans to travel to targeted foreign markets to locate distributors. Participation in upcoming Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation trade ventures to Canada and Australia is also being considered.

“Gondola Train has a very robust action plan,” Baumann said. “What will make the company successful is that everyone on their team is engaged and all are involved in various aspects of the ExporTech™ expansion plan. There is no doubt in my mind they will be wildly successful.”

For more information on ExporTech™ and other programs offered by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership, contact Roxanne Baumann at 262.442.8279 or email Roxanne at: [email protected]