Merchandise sales to Mexico, China and Japan led the gains, for the best performance since 2008.
Minnesota's export economy continued to recover in 2011 as state manufacturers sold $20.3 billion worth of merchandise last year, up 7.3 percent from 2010, according to a U.S. Commerce Department report released Tuesday.
Key export categories include computer and electronic products from the likes of Honeywell and 3M Co., machinery made by industrial equipment companies such as Graco and Donaldson; transportation equipment from Loram Maintenance of Way, which makes equipment that maintains railroad tracks around the world, and building products from Andersen Corp. and Marvin Windows.
The state's 2011 performance is the best since 2008, when Minnesota exporters sold $19.2 billion overseas only to see that number plummet 19 percent, to $15.5 billion, in 2009 as the recession tightened its grip on the global economy.
Ryan Kanne, director of the U.S. Commercial Service in Minneapolis, said that smaller companies did an impressive job of growing exports in 2011. They included Schaefer Ventilation Equipment in Sauk Rapids, laser tool maker Jet Edge in St. Michael, Minn., and Mate Precision Tooling in Anoka.
"They did really well" and could serve as an example to other firms that opportunities for growth exist overseas, Kanne said. "While many Minnesota businesses are exporting, many more firms have yet to tap their export potential. Only a small fraction of all U.S. companies export, and of those that do, 58 percent sell to only one foreign market. There's plenty of room to grow more exports."
Kanne told the Star Tribune that some smaller firms are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with overseas growth. And many don't know that the Minnesota Trade Office and the U.S. Commercial Service in Minneapolis can assist them. That educational effort and a new emphasis on international trade are being pushed by the Obama administration to help create jobs and ignite the lackluster economic recovery.
Nationally U.S. merchandise exports rose 15 percent, to $1.48 trillion.
Going forward, trade officials are hopeful that recent upticks are here for good.
Minnesota's 2011 merchandise export sales increased to Mexico (24 percent), China (23 percent), Japan (15 percent), Philippines (13 percent), and Korea (12 percent), according to the Commerce Department's International Trade Administration.
"Minnesota exporters continue to sell some of the most innovative products and services to world destinations, " said Francisco Sanchez, U.S. under secretary for international trade. "Eighty-five percent of world economic growth over the next five years will take place outside of the United States. As the U.S. economy builds momentum, we must continue to equip U.S. businesses with all the necessary tools to increase exports that support millions of high-paying jobs across the country."
But Wells Fargo senior economist Scott Anderson said Minnesota and the nation face headwinds. Parts of Europe are in a recession, Asia's economy is slowing and parts of Brazil and Chile are having problems.
About "50 percent of our Minnesota exports go to Europe and Asia. And so [their downturn] will have measurable impact," Anderson said. One positive trend is the weak U.S. dollar, which is helping prop up exports, Anderson said.
The Minnesota export figures the Commerce Department tracks and released this week, differ somewhat from the figures tracked by the state of Minnesota. The Minnesota Trade Office is due to release full 2011 export figures soon.
The Minnesota Trade Office reported in January that state exports grew 4 percent to $5.1 billion in the third quarter, the most recent figures available. But that was the best third-quarter growth since 2008.
Manufactured goods made up the largest share of exports for the third quarter. And exports of vehicle products, including Polaris and Arctic Cat snowmobiles and ATVs, jumped 17 percent, or $69 million, to deliver the largest gain among all industries. Growth was particularly strong in Canada, Finland, Sweden and Mexico.