Small Town Business STEPs into the Global Marketplace with a Little Help From SBA

Debra Dudley is a “country girl” and proud of it. She grew up planning to be a country music star, but fate had a different calling. Her stardom came a little later in life as the SBA’s 2017 Kentucky Small Business Person of the Year and the National Small Business Person of the Year 1st-Runner-Up.

Debra was recently recognized at the 2020 Mid-America Trade Summit as a featured export honoree and shared her export success story. And on Tuesday, December 15, at 2 p.m. EST, SBA will be hosting a webinar, featuring Debra and other small businesses that use export programs to grow internationally and give their businesses a competitive edge.

Debra’s business continues to grow despite the impacts from the coronavirus pandemic thanks to success in markets such as Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom.  And this growth makes a significant impact on her community: Debra’s small business is the biggest employer in the town of Bonnieville in south-central Kentucky, population 270, of which she employs 31, nearly 12 percent of the town’s population!  

Oscarware is the family-owned manufacturing business founded in 1989 by Debra and her late husband, Reg Dudley. Sensing the anything-can-be-grilled trend, they invented a new product they called “grill topper,” making it possible to cook a variety of meals on an outdoor grill. The company is now the leading domestic manufacturer of both disposable and porcelain-coated steel toppers in the U.S. 

Oscarware’s international trade journey began in 2014 when they were invited to participate in the Governor’s Trade Mission to the United Kingdom. That mission opened their eyes to their global sales potential. Debra leveraged her business relationship with Walmart to begin a conversation with the U.K.’s version of Walmart, Asda, during that mission, and the rest is history.  

The real key that launched her success was the State Trade Expansion Program (STEP) grant, which reimbursed a significant portion of their travel costs. Without STEP, she would not have participated in that mission. Administered by the SBA, STEP provides financial awards to state and territory governments to assist small businesses with export development.  

Debra had never heard of the STEP grant before that mission invite. She has tapped into STEP every year to support her business with compliance audits, packaging modifications, product testing, and shipping of samples to prospective foreign clients.

As the COVID crisis has reduced travel opportunities, STEP has responded by increasing limits for supporting website globalization and e-commerce capabilities, up from $3,000 pre-COVID to $10,000 now.  

Debra is planning to utilize  STEP funds to update her website to facilitate virtual overseas business as Oscarware continues to deal with the challenges of COVID.

While they have made production adjustments to facilitate social distancing and a safe workplace, business has increased as more people are cooking from home. Who doesn’t like to throw something on the grill?

Oscarware is looking to take advantage of this trend and seasonality by beginning to explore opportunities in the Southern Hemisphere, possibly through Gold Key or virtual matchmaking services from the U.S. & Foreign Commercial Service for markets such as Australia, Chile, or Argentina. These services are also eligible for STEP reimbursement.

Debra praises her great team for her success. “We’re just AWESOME!” But she also acknowledges that “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for others passionate about helping small businesses. Sometimes you need to ask for help. The resources are out there.”

Her advice for other prospective small business exporters: “Call until you find the assistance you need. The struggles are worth it and make you stronger. And you can create a lot of good memories in the process.”

To learn more about STEP and hear from other businesses utilizing the program, tune in for this webinar on Tuesday, December 15, at 2 p.m. EST. 

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