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Maine business could be a model for new federal export program launch

Auburn Manufacturing Inc. faced aggressive Chinese competition amid COVID-19 struggles, and is now selling products to 30 countries.

AUBURN, Maine — Kathie Leonard smiled as she led a tour through her warehouse on Wednesday. 

Unless her invited guests were within several feet of her, her voice could not be heard over the din of nearby textile weaving machines.

To Leonard, the noise was a lovely orchestra. It meant her shelves were filling with textiles, with trucks soon to follow — bringing goods to customers around the U.S. and to ports, which would carry them to 30 countries.

It was an especially welcomed noise because navigating the business world during the last six years or so had been like walking on thread for the CEO of Auburn Manufacturing Incorporated, or AMI.

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"We’re doing OK," she shrugged. "It’s still an uphill — not a battle, but there’s a few skirmishes."

Skirmishes, like taking on the Chinese government. 

AMI makes valuable textiles that are woven, stitched, or painted to insulate against extreme heat. Leonard and the U.S. Commerce Department found that Chinese companies were dumping similar product into the U.S. at what the department considered unfairly below market value, and it levied duties against China in 2017.

Then, COVID-19 came just as AMI was rebounding. 

On Wednesday, Senator Angus King, I-Maine, and Judith Pryor, vice chair of the board of the Export-Import Bank of the U.S., or EX-IM, toured the warehouse to talk about resources available to help businesses like AMI thrive on a global scale.

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The federal bank just launched what it calls the “Make More in America Initiative,” and aims to help businesses thrive oversees through loans and insurance that backs nearly all potential sale funds in international deals. 

This means that Leonard can make sales with confidence and without demanding all of the money up front.

"We go as far as India to send product, and it’s nice that we can have a relationship where we can sell them, just like we would here in the United States, and provide terms, payment terms," she explained. "They don’t have to pay it ahead of time and, in the old days, that’s what we would have had to do, and that never seemed fair to me."

AMI employs 50 Mainers across two locations. Business owners can apply for the federal program here.

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