Community Economy

Sandra Elliot has a lot of work to do.

She’s an electrical technician at Thermex Thermatron, a mid-sized manufacturing company that exports an array of products from their shop in Jeffersontown.

Elliot is tasked with assembling the electrical components that power presses, generators and other industrial systems made by the company. She’s working overtime to fill orders, but she doesn’t mind. In fact, she enjoys it.

“I love creating, and I love building,” she said.

At a recent trade show, the company got a big order from a new client, said Ray Lund, its president and CEO. Lund had never been to the trade show before and said he may not have gone if he didn’t get a grant from the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement.

The program, known by its acronym BEAM, facilitates funding to companies like Lund’s with the hopes of expediting growth. Lund’s company got a $4,500 grant that offset the cost of attending the trade show. Had he not gone, Lund said, he’d probably still have been able to place the order, but he would have had to invest more money in courting the client.

And making investments without the guarantee of a return is tough for a small or mid-sized business like his.

“You have to watch every penny,” he said.

Jeanine Duncliffe recognizes this barrier confronting many businesses in and around Louisville. She’s the director of the city’s international economic development department. She said BEAM is helping tip the risk in favor of the manufacturers by providing the financial support to find new ways to get in front of potential customers.

Sometimes that’s getting the funds to go to a trade show, she said. Other times, it’s buying translation software to communicate with foreign investors.

“These grants make it easier for companies to take a chance,” she said.

To date, the BEAM program — which is funded by a $200,000 grant from JP Morgan Chase — has awarded grants to 40 small or medium-sized manufacturing companies, Duncliffe said.

The aim is to help them export more product, either by breaking into new markets or expanding their presence in existing markets.

“They help a company to make multiple investments in a given year instead of one,” she said.

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said there is much to gain by supporting burgeoning manufacturers like Thermex Thermatron.

The 22-county BEAM region, stretching from Louisville to Lexington, accounted for nearly half of the state’s $28 billion exports in 2015, Fischer said. The aerospace industry is the state’s top exporter, followed by the auto industry, according to the U.S. Census.

And as annual export totals continue to tick up — the state tallied about $22 billion in exports in 2012, according to the U.S. Census — Fischer said developing the export ability of small to medium-sized manufacturers is “critical to a prosperous future.”

Sandra Elliot isn’t thinking too much about that future on this day. She’s busy piecing together what appears to be a tangle of multi-colored wires and cables into a giant metal box that, when finished, will be a heavy-duty generator.

She likes the work because it reminds her of an algebra problem.

“The math problem might be like two pages long to get an answer,” she said. “But I enjoy it.”

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.