Montana Manufacturers Eye Trade Deal

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Small rules trip up small companies in the world of foreign trade, which is why Lewistown’s Spika Manufacturing is interested in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Spika makes fine-tuned catwalks that allow technicians to work on every square inch of U.S. war craft without ever setting foot on their high-tech surface. The company also makes similar products for helicopters, jumbo cargo and refueling planes.

U.S. manufactured aircraft tend to flow to other countries once free trade agreements are forged. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed 12-nation trade agreement among Pacific Rim countries, could help Spika get a foot in the door of TPP countries.

The benefit to Spika is that free trade countries usually agree to recognize each other’s manufacturing standards, like Underwriters Laboratories, which tests and certifies U.S. products.

“If they recognize UL that’s helpful,” said Spika’s Jeff Ruffner. “Unlike a big manufacturer, we don’t have the resources to work through things if they don’t recognize our standards.”

There are several Montana businesses that would benefit from a free trade agreement in the Asian Pacific, said Arnie Sherman executive director of the Montana World Trade Center in Missoula.

Missoula-based Washington Companies, owns Seaspan Corp., which owns and manages container ships. If there’s more trade in the Asian Pacific, Seaspan will be a winner, Sherman said.

TSI USA, a Missoula-area manufacturer of health supplements, has laboratories in both the United States and Asia. Free trade could make business a lot easier for companies with manufacturing on both sides of the Pacific.

The Asian-Pacific region is a natural fit for Montana trade, Sherman said. Roughly 75 percent of the Montana’s wheat is shipped to nations in the region, particularly Japan, which is one of the biggest buyers of the Montana wheat.

In the last decade, grain companies with stakeholders in South Korea and Japan have either expanded or built from scratch more than a half dozen million-bushel grain elevators in Montana. Each facility is equipped with a loop track large enough to quickly load more than 120 grain rail cars bound for shipping terminals in Washington and Oregon.

Trade agreements have made a difference for manufacturers like MRL Equipment of Billings. MRL is the nation’s largest manufacturer of truck-mounted road-marking machines. It does its manufacturing in a 90,000-square-foot warehouse on Southgate Drive in Billings and at a Missoula facility. The company’s workforce is about 120.

In 2010, one of the MRL’s foreign markets, South Korea, entered a free trade agreement with the United States. The deal eliminated an 8 percent tariff on U.S. products.

Intellectual property protections are a big concern when doing trade without an agreement, MRL President Jim Spielman said, as are concerns about the manufacturing and local materials.

By Tom Lutey

Billings Gazette