For Jeff Hohman, the global marketplace literally opened up after a simple question.
Hohman, president of family-owned, Puyallup-based Northwest Door, Inc., was in Australia on a business trip when he noticed that the prevalent style of garage door down under was different from the sectional roll-ups commonly seen on American homes.
“Ours — you know, they’re the ones with the horizontal sections that move upward on the tracks,” said Hohman. “You recognize them everywhere. Well, they’re mostly roll-up steel doors down there in Australia, kind of like you see on storage facilities here. It’s a little different.”
Curious, he asked why.
“That’s just the style down there,” he said. “That’s how it’s been for a while, and so that was just what was popular.”
Sensing a business opportunity, Hohman tucked the observation in his back pocket and, upon his stateside return, proceeded to capitalize.
“Our style of doors actually keeps heat out better than that steel roll-up kind,” he said. “You know, Australia can get so hot during some parts of the year — they’re basically all desert in the middle — well, we thought that if we embarked on introducing them to the benefits of our style of insulated doors, people in Australia would welcome that as an option if it was available to them.”
That brainstorm was a little over four years ago, before Northwest Door launched an business expansion to Oceania, nurturing the arrangement from infancy to a quarter of Australian accounts in 2013, along with one in New Zealand with multiple locations. The local business community took notice, with the company’s success exporting to the southern hemisphere — coupled with its longtime, burgeoning export business to western Canada — contributing to Northwest Door winning World Trade Center Tacoma’s 2013 Emerging Business of the Year award.
And while extra revenue is always a boon, adding the Australian market also helped level out Northwest Door’s revenues during the winter months.
“There’s some seasonality to our business today,” Hohman explained. “During the January-February-March timeframe, it does slow down somewhat. Well, Australia-New Zealand is perfect for us because that’s the middle of their summer.”
Just as significantly, the expansion into Australia came with the added benefit of unlocking yet another geographic market: the Middle East.
“They have a similar climate to the Australian desert, hot and dry,” Hohman said. “We just thought it would be a natural fit.”
Today, Northwest Door’s export business continues its strong growth track, with 12 percent of the company’s revenue coming from international trade. Canada remains the largest destination for Northwest’s exports, but overseas business is on a robust pace, with the Middle East up 26 percent and the Pacific region up 74 percent in 2014.
“It’s a small part of our business still, but we started with something like $20,000 or $30,000 (in revenue in Australia and the Middle East), and now we’re doing several hundreds of thousands,” Hohman said. “And we expect it to grow. I can’t release specific numbers, but it won’t surprise me a bit if just that part of the business along is over a million dollars this year.
“It’s not so much that the market is growing down there (in Australia and the Pacific),” he added, “but we’re continuing to introduce a product that’s really not been widespread yet. In fact, I was down in Perth in October last year and someone was telling me that less than 5 percent of all garage doors (in Australia) are insulated still. So, again, there’s a lot of opportunity there. And in Saudi, even moreso, the demand is there for the insulated doors, because you get that incredible amount of heat during the day.”
Northwest has branched out in the Middle East, with its primary wholesaler selling in 26 Saudi cities. Business has also grown past the country’s borders, with Northwest establishing wholesale footholds in Bahrain, Oman and potentially Kuwait.
The stout trade picture has contributed to Northwest Door’s overall health as a business, with the company boasting a compound annual growth rate of over 12 percent since 2010, with 10 percent growth last year and 2015 projected as another double-digit growth year. Domestic sales have benefited from a remodeling boom spurred by the rebounding economy, and with the proposed new Trans-Pacific Partnership — a 12-nation trade deal in the works since 2005 but gaining steam this year — encompassing some countries neighboring Northwest’s Oceania footprint, Hohman said the company is poised for more expansion.
“There were two opportunities I can remember within the last month,” Hohman said. “One being Thailand and one somewhere else where there’s a 15 percent tariff. Now, we know we’re not the lowest cost producer in the world. We do know we can be competitive and we know we have innovative products. But when you’re up against a tariff like that — as an example, places like China, they don’t have to pay a 15 percent tariff to get their products into places like Thailand. Our perspective is pretty simple: We just want a level playing field … Those tariffs can and do hinder us, so wherever possible, we’d like to see those reduced. And the TPP, it covers the whole Asia Pacific region.”
Other, minor hiccups have also arisen here and there, most recently related to the finally resolved labor slowdown at the Port’s terminals. An Australian business partner, for example, had a 40-foot shipping container full of doors — about 90 of them — delayed some three weeks because of the backup.
“That was a mess,” Hohman said. “We were still able to get containers out, but it took a lot more work. We’re not sending containers out every day, but we’re sending out containers every week or every other week, so it required a lot of gymnastics.”
With the slowdown in the rearview, however, Hohman touted the Port’s proximity as a continuing asset.
“Our location near the Port of Tacoma has just been a big advantage,” Hohman said. “We can fill a container and be at the Port in 20 minutes.
“It’s just a good climate for us right now,” he added. “The economy is bouncing back, and things are continuing to grow for us internationally. I think, if we just continue to leverage the advantages that we do have and continue on the path that we’ve set for ourselves, we’re going to be on track to continue to succeed.”