STERLING – Democratic Congresswoman Cheri Bustos was in town Monday to visit a local business that she said perfectly illustrates the need for legislation she introduced in the House last week.
The 17th District U.S. representative toured Boston Leather at 1801 Eastwood Drive, and used the small operation as a backdrop to discuss the Boosting America's Exports Act.
The bill would help small- and medium-sized businesses find growth opportunities in foreign markets.
"It's easy for big corporations like John Deere and Caterpillar to find new global markets, but smaller companies usually don't know where to start," Bustos said.
Boston Leather makes specialty leather products such as belts, wallets, cellphone holders and radio straps for law enforcement, firefighters, corrections and transit workers. All of the company's products are made in the Sterling shop.
Some other high-profile customers are UPS, the National Parks Service, and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Owner Tony Valentino's family came to America from Italy in the 1930s. Valentino grew up in Chicago, and bought the leather business in 1991. Eight years later, he moved Boston Leather to Sterling.
"We were in an old industrial building near the Loop, and we were getting pushed out because they were turning it into condos," Valentino said. "We needed some unskilled workers with a good work ethic that we could train."
He and his son, TJ Valentino, started in Sterling with 18 employees; they now have 48. They get a lot of their business by going to a variety of events, including trade shows, and firefighter conferences, TJ said.
The business does very little exporting, but Bustos said the potential is great for fine handmade products that are made in America.
"This is a unique company – nothing is handmade anymore," she said. "Boston Leather is a role model for Make It In America."
Make It In America is a package of several bills worked on by House Democrats that focus on creating a stronger economy through a resurgence in manufacturing.
When Tony Valentino came to Sterling, he made sure he had enough land for expansion, but Boston Leather is outgrowing its building and he's struggling with the cost. It would now cost double his initial investment to expand, he said.
That's where new market opportunities could come into play, Bustos said.
"Maybe exports can be a part of your expansion," she said. "This is the perfect example of a product that has export potential."
Export assistance centers are operated by the U.S. Commercial Service. The closest are in Peoria and Rockford. Bustos said the services are provided at no cost by the federal government.
Among other things, the Boosting America's Exports Act:
• Directs the U.S. Commercial Service to design metrics and set goals relating to new-to-exporting firms served by the agency’s programs.
• Increases resources for export assistance centers so they can conduct outreach to non-exporting firms, enhance collaboration with state and local export promotion programs, and hire additional trade specialists and administrative staff as needed.
• Instructs the undersecretary of international trade to conduct an assessment of whether export assistance centers are optimally located to reach small- and medium-sized businesses, and presents a plan to Congress on underperforming locations to close and new locations to open.