In Little Rock Tuesday to speak at the Clinton School of Public Service and tour Power Technology Inc.'s laser manufacturing facility in Alexander, U.S. Export-Import Bank chairman Fred Hochberg insisted his job is to level the playing field for American exporters, big and small.
Hochberg, who was scheduled to address Clinton School students Tuesday night, took part of the afternoon to visit one of the state's top exporters.
He didn't leave without addressing the current debate in Washington over the reauthorization of the bank, funded through the end of the current fiscal year in June.
Some criticize the bank as "corporate welfare" for large corporations, while others, including William Burgess, vice president of operations for Power Technology, see it as a lifeline for small businesses that export.
The bank provides services such as export credit insurance, protecting exporters against the risk of nonpayment by foreign customers; working capital guarantees and loans; and foreign buyer financing.
The Wall Street Journal recently published a detailed look at both sides of the Ex-Im debate.
"We want to make sure we provide a level playing field for all businesses, large and small," Hochberg said. "The only thing that drives us is jobs here. If GE makes something in France, then they should talk to the French. But this debate has informed a lot more small businesses that this tool is available to them."
Burgess said his company, an Innovate Arkansas client firm, has compared private carrier services and resources to those offered by the Ex-Im Bank.
"They told me if you're not writing six-figure deals, Ex-Im is the best place for you," he said. "They don't want to deal with small businesses. Ex-Im is easy to work with. They want our business."
PTI has exported for more than 30 of its 46 years, and sends its laser products to 42 countries. Exports make up roughly 20 percent of its sales, and the company's sales abroad continue to grow, up 26 percent in the last year alone.
Ex-Im lists 44 Arkansas companies as exporters, and they've exported $778 million in goods and services since 2007. Total U.S. exports were valued at $2.3 trillion in 2014, ranking the country second behind China. Hochberg said China's own Export-Import Bank has funded more export transactions in the last two years than its American equivalent has in its entire 81-year existence.
"That's the reality of the world we live in," he said.
Taking down the Ex-Im Bank would be like disarming our nuclear arsenal, Burgess said.
"We need the Ex-Im Bank for big and small business," he said.
Without its exports, PTI would lose five to eight jobs, Burgess said. The company currently employs roughly 50 workers.
It hopes to increase that count soon. PTI invited Hochberg to Alexander to show off its new Illumina laser projection system. Debuted last week at the Ron Robinson Theater in the River Market District, Illumina was developed to replace the xenon bulbs in use in the movie industry.
PTI says laser-illuminated projection provides more light and brighter, more vibrant colors, especially for 3-D movies, and is much more efficient. This month, PTI will present its product to industry representatives at the National Association of Broadcasters trade show and CinemaCon, both held in Las Vegas.
Burgess said PTI is already accepting orders for Illumina, sold in the "low six figures" and marketed to large-format cinema operators and movie projection companies. Burgess estimates that Illumina can save $8,000 per screen per year. Its lasers would have a lifetime of 10-20 years compared to the traditional xenon bulbs, which need to be replaced every 1,000 hours.
Plus, laser-illuminated projection simply delivers better pictures. Walter Burgess, PTI vice president for sales and engineering, said only about 20 percent of light reaches the eye with xenon bulbs. That number is reversed with Illumina, he said, which delivers about 80 percent directly to the eye providing much more vivid color.
About 100,000 of the world's 130,000 movie theaters exist outside the U.S. In China, theaters are going up at a fast rate to meet the demands of a growing middle class.
"There's a lot of export potential," William Burgess said.
Hochberg said he was impressed with the innovation on display Tuesday.
"We visit a lot of companies, and one of the best parts of my job is days like today," he said. "These kind of advances are how we're going to grow. It's this kind of product, these kind of innovations, that we're really good at."
Hochberg said he wants to make sure companies like PTI have the chance to continue growing their businesses.
"We just want to make sure American workers get a fair shake," he said. "There's no reason why we can't be the No. 1 exporter again."