Kansas Exporter Spreads Global Cheer with “Ballooning” Sales: Company Set to Benefit from TPPMarch 16, 2016
By Curt Cultice, Senior Communications Specialist, U.S. Commercial Service
When Ted A. Vlamis and his wife, Betty, left their jobs in the food industry in 1978, they knew it was time to pursue their lifelong dream of starting their own company. As it turned out, they didn’t have to wait long. A year later, they heard rumblings about Sherwood Medical, a Pioneer, Ohio, medical glove and balloon manufacturer that was looking to spin-off its balloon business. The timing was perfect. Ted and Betty bought the firm and renamed it Pioneer Balloon Company. Now located in Wichita, Kansas, with Ted A. serving as president and Betty as executive vice president, the company’s “ballooning” export sales are appealing to decorator-doers worldwide.
“We really see ourselves more as a decoration and entertainment business,” says Ted J. Vlamis, the couple’s son, who serves as vice-president. “We provide value-added services to encourage use of our balloons by professional artists and decorators, and for special occasions such as corporate events, bar mitzvahs, weddings, and, well, you name it.”
For example, the company established and continues to grow a unique, professional “balloon network” that teaches customers how to decorate with balloons and run a profitable business. Pioneer Balloon educates these firms on innovative techniques for management of employees, tax laws, costing, rent, and so on. By helping these businesses thrive, Pioneer Balloon helps sustain and grow a robust network of professional customers.
The company’s latex balloons, ranging in sizes from 5 inches to 3 feet in diameter, include its popular professional Qualatex brand product line, which is heavier than traditional balloons and uses a higher grade of pigments for a deep, rich color. The firm’s less-expensive balloons, sold at retail, are lighter weight and offer more subtle colors. The company also makes popular foil balloons and distributes stretchy plastic balloons. And for all those would-be event planners, here’s a timely tip: Regular helium-filled latex balloons stay airborne for 18 to 24 hours, and foil balloons stay up for as long as four weeks. See you at the party.
Selling to Trans-Pacific Partnership Markets
Pioneer Balloon first began exporting in the mid-1980s, making its first sales to Canada. Today, the firm sells to 100 countries, with exports growing from 35 percent of overall sales in 1997 to 50 percent of total sales today.
The company stands to benefit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) once it is enacted. By reducing or eliminating tariffs and non-tariff barriers, TPP will give U.S. businesses improved access to 11 Pacific Rim markets, collectively representing 40 percent of global GDP.
“About 50 percent of our export sales go to TPP countries. Japan, Canada, Mexico, and Australia are some of the key markets,” Vlamis says. “While many of these countries are already duty-free, we see major benefits if TPP eliminates tariffs in Malaysia, Japan, and Vietnam. Those three markets represent a combined population of some 250 million consumers with increased spending power.”
For Pioneer Balloon, the TPP would immediately eliminate current tariffs of 5 percent in Malaysia and 2.8 percent in Japan, while phasing out Vietnam’s 20 percent tariff in four years. In addition, the TPP would help reduce the burdensome regulations in Japan.
Putting the benefits of TPP in context, Vlamis recalls how NAFTA helped the company grow and become more competitive. NAFTA eliminated the 20 percent tariff on the company’s exports to Mexico, allowing the firm to boost sales and employment by reducing costs.
Pioneer Balloon’s main U.S. production facilities in Dallas, Texas, and distribution headquarters in El Dorado, Kansas, serve as hub for its domestic and much of its export sales. The company also supplies U.S-based materials and expertise through an integrated global supply chain to its facilities in Canada, Mexico, England, and Australia that print and distribute balloons for their respective markets. Altogether, these integrated global operations support 600 jobs in the United States out of the company’s worldwide total of 1000.
Ted’s Words of Wisdom on Exporting
Vlamis offers some solid advice for those businesses that have yet to export: “I would encourage businesses to take the ‘plunge.‘ It diversifies your business, so if you encounter problems in the United States, you can augment your sales by doing better overseas. Exporting also makes you a stronger company because you can adopt ideas from other countries, and that helps you better succeed domestically as well.”
How about advice for those U.S. companies already exporting; any thoughts? “Yes, the most important thing for me is going out and seeing the customer personally. There’s just no substitute. You can’t understand their business until you see them personally. Hey, when I travel, I adopt the attitude that I’m a student wanting to understand and embrace their culture.”
Along the way, Pioneer Balloon has also leveraged export expertise from the U.S. Commercial Service offices in Wichita and abroad for business matchmaking, visa information, customs clarification, and single company promotions that helped the firm enter several new markets.
Finally, there are the personal rewards from doing business internationally. “Exporting has been enriching my life for 30 years,” Vlamis says. “I’ve had opportunity to speak other languages and experience new cultures and friendships. Just last week, I gave some visiting overseas customers a taste of iconic American cuisine by bringing in lunch from one of our Wichita BBQ restaurants. They loved it.”