The IC-DISC Show

Ep050: Exploring Alabama's Booming Industries with Carolyn Turner

December 13th, 2023

In today's episode of the IC-DISC show, I have a captivating discussion with Carolyn Turner from the Alabama International Trade Center. We uncover fascinating details about Alabama's economic progress and the pivotal role of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in boosting job growth and new businesses.

Carolyn shares inspiring success stories of SBDC clients who utilized free services to export goods successfully. I also learned more about the SBDC's impactful support for small businesses through cost-free assistance.

We wrap it up by exploring how SBDC teams in Texas and Colorado foster business growth.



  • Carolyn Turner, the Assistant Director of Research and Training at the Alabama International Trade Center for Imports and Exports, joins us to discuss Alabama's economic progress and the impact of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC).
  • We discuss the remarkable growth in job creation, economic investment, and new business formations in Alabama, which can be directly linked to the efforts of the SBDC.
  • Carolyn shares inspiring success stories of businesses that have used the SBDC's free services to successfully export goods.
  • We delve into the valuable, cost-free services provided by the SBDC and its transformative role in Alabama's business landscape.
  • We explore the flourishing industries in Huntsville, Alabama, including aerospace, aviation, missile defense, and genomics.
  • Carolyn and I have a lively discussion about the economic influence of Bucky's in Alabama and the importance of taking breaks.
  • We touch on the peculiarities of international business, such as the unnecessary pursuit of perfection, and engage in a playful debate about whether to use hot or cold water when scooping ice cream.
  • We highlight the work being done by the SBDC teams in Texas and Colorado to support small businesses and entrepreneurs.
  • Carolyn emphasizes the importance of making use of SBDC resources, particularly for those in Texas, and encourages checking out the San Antonio SBDC.
  • We end on a note of importance, discussing the significance of finding joy in what you do and taking breaks to maintain passion and enthusiasm.


Show Notes

Be a Guest

About IC-DISC Alliance

About Alabama International Trade Center


Carolyn Turner


(AI transcript provided as supporting material and may contain errors)

Dave: Hi, my name is David Spray and this is the IC disc show. My guest today is Carolyn Turner from Alabama. Carolyn is the Assistant Director of Research and Training at the Alabama International Trade Center for Imports and Export. I think this might be the longest title of any guest I've ever had. So the Alabama International Trade Center for Importing and Exporting is a division of the Alabama Small Business Development Center, which in turn is funded by the Small Business Administration.

I learned that every state has its own Small Business Development Center focused on increasing the economic impact of small businesses. So we talked about the different ways that the Small Business Development Center in Alabama has had an impact. Carolyn shares some amazing stats as far as job growth, economic investment, new business formations in Alabama that are directly tied to the Small Business Development Center. We also discussed some specific stories of clients of her organization who export and successful export stories and success stories that developed. And then, on a more fun note, we also talked about which Texas retail behemoth has had a bigger impact on her life in Alabama the famous Whataburger or the famous Buckeys and her answer there was pretty interesting. So even if you're not in Alabama, I would recommend that you investigate the Small Business Development Center in your state as well as the exporting arm to take advantage of their free services. This was a great episode and Carolyn has a real passion for helping small businesses and it comes through in the entire conversation.

Carolyn: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Dave: Good morning, Carolyn. Welcome to the podcast.

Carolyn: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

Dave: Sure. Now. Where are you? Where are you located today? I'm in Birmingham, Alabama, In Birmingham okay, and so are you a native Alabama. Is that the correct term?

Carolyn: I've spent most of my life here. Technically, I was born in California, but I grew up in Alabama.

Dave: Got there as quick as you could. That's what we say in Texas.

Carolyn: I know it gets a bad rep, but it's a pretty good state to live in.

Dave: I know I've been to Alabama several times. We have a client there and always wonderful experiences there. So let's talk about the organization, and I'm really intrigued by this whole structure and I've learned a lot about this from you. So you're technically an employee of the University of Alabama, right?

Carolyn: Yes.

Dave: But this is part of a bigger structure, so could you maybe give the audience a sense of how everything fits together? So let's maybe start at the top. What's the umbrella organization for everything?

Carolyn: Sure, so I'm part of America's SBDC that stands for the Small Business Development Center. We are a national organization that's funded mostly through Congress, through the Small Business Administration, and there are these in every state. So Alabama SBDC is part of that organization and in the state of Alabama it's a partnership with the University of Alabama, so this is really considered a federal state partnership. Funding comes through Congress, through the SBA. We get some matching funds through the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama manages our grant.

Dave: Okay.

Carolyn: Slightly differently in other states. Every state can kind of handle it differently, but in Alabama that's how it's worked for the last 40 plus years.

Dave: Okay, and then within the Alabama SBDC, I guess there's kind of sub organizations, of which the Research and Economic Development Center is one of those kind of subsidiary arms, is that right?

Carolyn: So the University Office of Research and Economic Development is a UA department. Within the SBDC we have four kind of divisions. We have our domestic business advisors that are just called the SBDC Small Business Development Center. We have our government contracting branch, which recently changed names to APEX. We have the Alabama International Trade Center, which I'm a part of, and then we also have a separate capital access team that is part of the SBDC.

Dave: Okay.

Carolyn: And within UA, we are housed within the Office of Research and Economic Development. Okay, and that's the dean that we report to.

Dave: Okay, well, that's, and I believe that you're a proud graduate of the University of Alabama.

Carolyn: Right Double degree graduate yes, I got my undergrad in international marketing in Spanish, with some extra studies and international studies, and then, a number of years later, once I started back with the SBDC, I got my master's degree in global business management.

Dave: Okay, now would, if you'd been a graduate from, say, one of the other large Alabama universities, would that have been a problem in your current role, or are they kind of not as competitive as people are on Saturdays?

Carolyn: No, In fact, because the university manages our grant, they actually manage the grants for a number of the other SBCs located throughout the state. So within Alabama, we have offices located at all of the major universities Auburn, Troy, Jacksonville State, North Alabama, UAH, Alabama State University, South Alabama, West Alabama. I think that's all of them, but many of them, even though they're located at Auburn or at UAH, they can be considered a University of Alabama employee.

Dave: Okay, that must be interesting for the folks at Auburn.

Carolyn: It can be. We do have some people that are UA employees but are definitely Auburn fans, and it's okay.

Dave: That's wonderful. Yeah, nothing like a nice friendly rivalry, friendly, some friendlier than others.

Carolyn: So the way it doesn't manage all of our centers, some universities still manage their own grants. We'll just see where it goes.

Dave: Gotcha, what a great attitude. So let's talk about the SBDC then in Alabama, and that's the Small Business Development Center. Is that what the C stands for? Yes, do you? I know I'm not as familiar with Alabama, but I know like in Texas the SBDC has a really big impact on the small business community. Do you happen to have any types of stats or summary or anything of the economic development that's occurred because of the SBDC or that the SBDC has been involved in?

Carolyn: Absolutely we do. We publish an economic impact report every year. So last year the metrics that we had were in 2000,. We created or helped create in Alabama over 1278 jobs. We worked with a lot.

I know and for a relatively small center, I think it's a pretty big impact. We had nearly 350 new business starts last year and our capital access team helped companies get over $100 million in capital access, whether that be traditional bank loans, sba loan guarantees, startup loans, investment capital all sorts of options. Wow, we do track that over the years as well. So over the last five years combined, we've helped over 7000 job creations, about 1300 new business starts and around 550 million in capital access.

Dave: Wow, that's really amazing.

Carolyn: It's a really incredible thing to see the impact that we can have. A few years ago, we informally did an interview of our employees and one of the questions was what is the reason you get out of bed in the morning? Why do you do this job? And the majority decision was the reason why all of us do this is because we love making an impact in our community.

Dave: Yeah, that really resonates with me because our business is really serving the same market. It's those privately held, closely held small businesses that seem to be the economic driver of our economy and I find it to be very satisfying to be able to make a difference in those organizations, because they are the bedrock of our communities. So, that's pretty cool. And how long have you been doing this? How long have you been involved with these various entities?

Carolyn: I just celebrated 15 years 15 years, wow.

Dave: Well, that's awesome, so obviously you must really enjoy it.

Carolyn: I do. I love my job. I love the different projects that we get to work on and all the different companies. I love seeing the impact that we get to have. One of the downfalls in economic development across the industry is that you have to spend a lot of time and a lot of hours trying to work on projects before something turns to fruition. So being able to be here for the long haul and seeing the results of the work that we do is really inspiring.

Dave: Yeah, I bet it is. I bet it is. So why don't we now drill down to the division that you're part of, that's the Economic Development Center. So, at kind of a high level, what are some of the ways that the center helps businesses?

Carolyn: So the Alabama International Trade Center is focused on helping the small and medium-sized companies in Alabama grow through international trade. Our domestic business advisors work on what I call domestic business issues how to start a business, what kind of legal formation do you want, market research on how to grow your business, hiring and firing and tax questions, and quick books and all the basics of how to run a business.

When it comes to international, we help them when they are trying to either export or import their products or services. Most of our clients tend to be manufacturers, just because it's, I guess, more common industry knowledge to export a tangible product. But many of companies have services that they can export. So we definitely work with exports of services as well. But the vast majority of our clients are manufacturers. They manufacture some kind of product that has typically been selling successfully domestically for a number of years and then they start branching internationally, and so the way that we work with companies is through a variety of different services. We have educational training sessions available on different international business topics. So about once a month we host an educational seminar on some kind of international business topic. I'm hosting one tomorrow on international documentation, partnered with UP, on the documentation requirements for exporting and importing. In the past we have done sessions on inco terms, classification, export controls, hazardous material, shipping certifications, on how to sell in Europe, general data protection regulations, you name it. We've probably hosted a seminar on that topic, okay.

I have to do one-on-one training. So I will go and visit companies and provide a few hours of one-on-one training on different business topics. Sometimes it's on Zoom. I'm seeing that a lot more often and I think probably across the country. You see this, Teams are not localized anymore. They might have team members spread over the country, and so pretty often we're doing Zoom sessions with clients when they'll bring in at the same time all of their employees from various locations and we'll do a training session on the basics of exporting or the basics of importing or export compliance, those types of things, and it's really great because new to export companies obviously need this training.

You know they don't know what they're doing, but what we see a lot of is even successful companies. As they grow and hire more people or they have turnover in employees, they'll bring us back in a couple years later and do refresher training, continuous education, for their employees. So that gives a lot of use. And then we also provide guidance on export trade finance. So that's really a niche market kind of separate than our general capital access team. When companies need to get access to the money that they need to manufacture their product for export. Sometimes it can be very challenging for them to get access to a line of credit through a bank, and so we'll talk to them about export working capital programs that exist, export credit insurance that they could get through the XM Bank on how they can mitigate risks of foreign receivables and what companies through all of those options, Because these programs exist to make it less risky for a small to medium size company to start thinking about exporting.

And you know, maybe they're exporting $250,000 worth of equipment to Germany or India, and if that customer in Germany or India didn't pay them, that could really hurt their business. I mean, who knows they could go out of business or doesn't pay them $250,000. And so why these programs exist? To make it easier. We also do a lot of market research, so that is one of the great partnerships that we have with the University of Alabama. We provide an internship to University of Alabama students that are then able to come in and help put together these industry specific customized market research reports for our Trade Center clients.

So whether that maybe they have no idea where they want to export to, and so we're starting from scratch, trying to help them figure out where overseas would be a good target market to start with, or successfully exported to 100 countries, and now they're trying to get into a new one for the first time, or they're having trouble with their existing distributor and they want contact information for other options. So standard research reports for us could take anywhere from 40 to 60 hours and we pay to have access to a lot of databases. As well as being part of the university, we get access to databases through the university, and so we'll pull all these different pieces of information and put together a customized report that companies can use to help develop their export strategy. It's great experience for the students because they get to work real world projects, not just make believe, made up ones, yeah, interaction with the companies usually and it's great information for the clients as well. I mean they would pay thousands and thousand dollars on the private market sector for this kind of research.

Dave: Sure, now, and that raises the question I was curious about Is there any? Does the Trade Center generate any revenues from any of its services, or are they all just complimentary?

Carolyn: It's all offered at no fee, so we do not charge for any of the services that we provide. Because our funding comes from the SBA, we are allowed to offer these services at no cost. The only thing we ask in return from our clients is that twice a year, they fill out a survey letting us know it's done a good job, because we have to gather all of that data and our metrics.

You know we're one of the few organizations that is really judged on our metrics and if we don't meet our goals, if we don't work with enough companies and help them grow and succeed and increase their sales and get access to capital, then we are at risk of losing our funding. So every metric point that we report, every economic impact that we report, is actually backed up by our clients. We're not allowed to claim anything, any kind of success, without their written permission.

Dave: Okay, well, that's well. That seems like a really fair trade. You do all this to help these companies and they just have to complete a survey twice a year. That seems like a fair trade.

Carolyn: It's pretty good and we're not just one time. That's one of the other things people think oh, you know, I'll just talk to you one time. No, most of my clients have been working with me for years and for a new to export company. Sometimes that's how long it takes, Other times, you know, they've just grown tremendously over the last few years and it's amazing to see where they've started versus where they are now.

Dave: Yeah, that's awesome and I bet you're really popular with your clients because you're providing the service at no out-of-pocket cost to them.

Carolyn: For the most part. Yes, I think our clients are fairly satisfied. We use a net promoter score rating that we track with our clients. It's typically pretty high up there. Every now and then we'll get a client that you know feels like they already know everything, like they don't need any help, but for the most part they're pretty helpful for the help that they receive.

Dave: Yeah, I would think so, because they're certainly getting their money's worth, right?

Carolyn: So at least they should feel like it.

I think so. We're constantly adding to our services as industry changes, as things modernize. So, you know, especially during the COVID pandemic, we switched a lot of efforts into online marketing, global website globalizing websites, information on how to do international shipping for direct you know, direct to consumer and e-commerce. We launched a program a few years ago on graphic design, so now we offer graphic design for free so that companies that are trying to upgrade their website so that it's more user-friendly for international users. Or we have a student right now who's creating animation videos for marketing for a couple of companies all at no cost.

Dave: That's awesome. Well, I love like case studies stories. I think it really kind of pulls it all together. Do you happen to have any examples of companies you've worked with in the last few years that you could kind of use as a case study and share some of the details?

Carolyn: Absolutely. We do turn in success stories to the SBA every year. That's part of our goals and metrics. I think that definitely makes us a little bit unique. We have a confidentiality agreement with all of our clients, so we're not allowed to discuss specifics of what we do with anyone else without written permission, so it's good that we get these authorized success stories from companies.

Over the last few years we've had quite a variety of different companies that have that we've worked with on these. So last year we worked with a company in Huntsville Polaris Solar Systems, polaris Sensor Technologies, I think is what it was called and we helped them navigate the world of export compliance. They have a regulated, export-controlled technology and so they had to make sure that they were following all the regulations and applying for licenses. We helped them practice their pitch when they were going to be pitching to foreign customers, realizing that the benefits of their products and technologies were actually different in different parts of the world and used in a different way, and so working with them to develop their pitch and their value proposition and introducing them to potential customers overseas. Another example is totally different industry sector. There was a company in a very rural, economically disadvantaged area of the state that had created a company developing very small tractors or very high tech. But the way that they came up with this design, it was easy to build, it was small, it was more affordable for individually run farms or small co-ops. And they had this novel idea of they were either going to manufacture these tractors in northeast Alabama or they would give the design, the blueprints of the tractor, for free, at no cost, to a foreign manufacturer for them to be able to create a manufacturing plant overseas and create local jobs. It's one of the ways that they wanted to give back to the community. Oh, that's how cool is that? It was really cool.

They changed names a couple of times when we worked with them. It was called Kleber Technologies and so we worked with them way back in the beginning, before they had done any exporting, and we went and visited them and provided in-house training on basics of international shipping and how to do export marketing. Through the years we did market research to help them find customers or distributors and overseas parts of the world. They eventually went and visited and sent pictures of clients in sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Latin America writing on the tractors Last year. So this is probably seven or eight years after we started with them. But last year, at this particular company, one of the Alabama's governor's exports awards oh, wow, because they successfully exported to 50 plus countries now and it's just amazing to see. So I tracked back down the student who had helped work on their market research way back in the beginning.

Oh, really I actually did that article on LinkedIn. I said hey, do you remember that project from eight years ago? Look at them now.

Dave: Wow, that's really cool. And that first company you mentioned you said they were in Huntsville, right? Yes, and I think a lot of folks outside of Alabama don't realize that Huntsville is like one of the rocket capitals of the US, right, space industry. How would I describe the industry?

Carolyn: Yeah, I mean rocket and space were known for NASA in Huntsville. We also have Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville and FBI, I think, just relocated down there. There's SpaceX activities that are planned, so aerospace, aviation, missile defense is another big one. But then surprisingly, hudson Alpha also is located there and they have been instrumental in genetics, genomics, research, pharmacogenomics, so it definitely kind of covers the gambit. When you take a tour at Hudson Alpha it's really interesting. From one side of the building you can look out and see all the NASA and space technologies, and then inside the building is genomics and genetics and agrogenetic, and then on the other side is cornfields, because that's the real Huntsville.

Dave: Wow, that is pretty cool. So this has really been kind of a fun overview for folks who are listening to this, who are in Alabama, who do international trade. What would be the best way for them to learn more? Would you just direct them to the website, or where should they kind of start? Should they just reach out to you? What's the kind of ideal process?

Carolyn: Just go to our website, aitcuaedu. Registration is free. As I said, we don't charge for anything that we do, and within the state of Alabama, we're part of a bigger group called the Export Alabama Alliance, so that's a group of all of the entities in the state that work together to promote trade. So we've got the Governor's International Trade Office, the US Department of Commerce on the federal level, local chambers of commerce, sba, ports, various entities that exist to help promote exporting, and so when you get one of us, you get all of us. We work together as a team to make sure that the companies get the support that they need, no matter what they're trying to do. And then, yeah, I just strongly recommend, no matter what state you're in, google your SBD, because they have a very valuable resource.

Dave: That's awesome. Well, as we're wrapping up, I have a couple of kind of more personal wild card type questions just for fun. So you mentioned you joined the organization 15 years ago, and so I'm just curious if you could like go back in time and give advice to your 15 year younger self, knowing what you know now. Like, what advice might you give to yourself with the perspective of 15 years of experience?

Carolyn: That's a tough one.

Dave: I know that's what makes it fun Fun for me, not so much fun for you.

Carolyn: I'm a. On a personal note, I am a recovering perfectionist.

Dave: Oh yeah, my wife is one of those, but not the recovery stage yet.

Carolyn: That has been a hard lesson to learn. A colleague that I had taught me something and it's a quote that has stuck with me and I tell it to everyone now and it is that you are a human being, not a human doing Okay, so that'd be your advice to yourself is just taking a bit of a chill pill and absolutely.

Dave: Yeah, my one of the quotes I like around that subject I also have some perfectionist tendencies is that great quote progress, not perfection.

Carolyn: Yes.

Dave: So, although you know there are some things I do push back a little bit, there are some things you need perfection on landing an airplane, open heart surgery, right, I mean, there's some things that you know it pretty much, perfect is the only, the only option.

Carolyn: Yeah, I agree. But in the world of international business I think perfection is not needed and progress is. And you know what I tell my students all the time that are doing these market research reports? Because you know they're so open ended. You could just keep researching for ever and ever and keep on finding more pieces of information. So I focused a lot on quality over quantity.

Dave: That is awesome. So by last question and this is a really fun one I think there are two famous or at least you know Texas institutions that have expanded eastward and I'm going to ask you which one you think is had made a bigger difference in your life, if any of them have. What a burger or Bucky's, oh Bucky's. I had a feeling you'd answer that one.

Carolyn: Yeah, it's kind of a saving joke. I mean I think we have two Bucky's in Alabama, maybe three.

Dave: According to the research I just pulled up, that as of April 10th of 2023, they'll have four stations in Alabama, but it's not quite clear how many of those are up and running right now.

Carolyn: There is one not far outside of Birmingham, on the path between Birmingham and Atlanta, and it is packed no matter what time of day it is. It's like a town, it's so big.

Dave: But Does it have? Is the road it's on called like Bucky's Boulevard too? That seems to be.

Carolyn: I don't think so. I don't know. Maybe, but it's definitely impacted everyone's road trips. I think you can't.

Dave: Yeah, I'm told that, not by without stopping at Bucky's.

Yeah, I'm told that Alabama has the second most number of Bucky's outside of Texas. So things are, yeah, and it's interesting because they're always Bucky's are always the same, but like in a good way, you know, and the best one, and I've always said that off on a tangent. I've always said that it seems like Bucky's competitive business advantage are the clean restrooms. That seems to be like what they really differentiate. But when you take a big picture, look at it from a business perspective, you're thinking that shouldn't be a sustainable business differentiator. Right, because in theory that anybody could copy that, but for whatever reason, nobody else cares to.

Carolyn: I don't know. I mean, I would say their main competitors would be like the pilots and the lying Jays. Sure, I remember the names of them. But as far as competition, I think that's definite competition there. I think Bucky's is the shop I mean it's, I don't know. Cracker barrel meets gas.

Dave: Yeah, yes, yeah. It's hard to describe to somebody who's not been to a Bucky's.

Carolyn: No, but this.

Dave: And they seem to be an economic development force because everyone I've ever been to because they need so much land and they always want to be on a busy highway that they oftentimes are not near cities, they're kind of in the middle of nowhere and they're always advertising really high starting hourly wages. So I get the sense that for a lot of these areas that they come into they really bring economic opportunity for folks that live nearby. I mean, it seems like the classic example is the person working the checkout registers Oftentimes seem to be a teenager that lives there locally and I think, man, can you think of a better like part-time job to have in high school than to be making $15 or $18 an hour working at Bucky's inside the air conditioning? Yeah, just talking to folks all day, I don't know.
*Carolyn: * My high school job was scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins. Oh that's. I mean with free ice cream perks.

Dave: Yeah, that one might have to trump Bucky's. I bet you're. I've always wondered are your hands and wrists and forearms just worn out at the end of the day? Oh my gosh, yes.

Carolyn: And gosh, the first Baskin Robbins I worked at. They used cold water in their faucets where you put the ice cream scoop and it was At my one arm. I had like huge muscle by the end of every summer.

Dave: Now did you get used to it then Like by the end of the summer, were you not as fatigued by the end of the day?

Carolyn: Yeah, but then you know, other ice cream shops use hot water to store their ice cream scoops in and it makes a huge difference.

Dave: Oh, I bet it does. You know why they use the cold water instead of hot? Yeah, any theory.

Carolyn: Looking back, I think they were just being cheap Okay.

Dave: Yeah, because I think I know at home if I'm scooping up several servings. You know, I know the old trick of the hot bowl of water to dip the scooper in to make it work better. The people.

Carolyn: We used to get these, the big old jars of cherries, and they would make us go through and cut them all in half. Oh wow, they would last twice as long, oh wow. Well, Honey, you know I guess. Managing is almost as hard right.

Dave: Yeah, that's the beauty of the free enterprise system. Every person tries, you know, gets to do it their way, and all of that. I mean, who knows, maybe the little bit of money they saved, maybe that translated to higher hourly earnings for the employees who knows, maybe, who knows? Carolyn, this has really been a fun conversation. Was there anything I didn't ask you that you wish I had, or anything that we should mention?

Carolyn: I would just say that the world of international trade is constantly changing. Okay, so find a local resource in your area that can keep you up to date.

Dave: Okay, that's awesome. Well, I appreciate that and I really appreciate your time today. I've really learned a lot more about the whole SBDC program in general and you've kind of inspired me to take a look the two states I spend the most time in are Texas and Colorado to take the initiative to start to learn more about those organizations Absolutely.

Carolyn: The SBDC team in Texas is absolutely amazing. This is absolutely phenomenal. I'm not sure if I've met anyone from the SBDC Colorado team, but definitely take advantage of your in Texas.

Dave: Yeah, I know in Houston. I think it's associated with the University of Houston. I think it's called the U of H SBDC.

Carolyn: I know it's the San Antonio SBDC that does most of international trade work in Texas.

Dave: Okay Well that's good to know. I'm going to be in San Antonio in a few weeks. I should check that out. Well, that's great. Well, that's great advice and this has really been a fun conversation and I really appreciate you taking time out of your day to share the story and obviously you have great enthusiasm and passion for what you're doing and that comes through and that's always fun to see people that really are inspired and really focused on how much they enjoy their job.

Carolyn: It makes a big difference when you enjoy what you do For sure, all right.

Dave: Well, have a great day, carolyn.

Carolyn: You too.