TAMPA — As the recession threatened to shutter Trucks-E-Quip Inc. after nearly half a century, Carl Larson realized he had one option to save his business: go big.
Larson used a $1 million loan from the Small Business Administration to expand his business overseas because his domestic market had collapsed.
It worked. Six years after he got his federal loan, Trucks-E-Quip is still in business, buying, selling and shipping semitrailer trucks and construction equipment here and abroad.
"Our biggest exporter is Nigeria," said Larson, 72. "Panama. Jamaica. We've done some work in Belgium, some in Costa Rica. Belize. Not so much in Brazil."
During a press tour of the company's 150,000-square-foot depot in east Hillsborough County on Friday, U.S. Small Business Administrator Karen Mills touted Larson's business as an example of how the SBA is trying to meet President Obama's goal to double the nation's exports by 2014. Last year U.S. exports set a record of $2.2 trillion, according to the agency.
"The president is very focused on exports," Mills said. "When we started the National Export Initiative … the idea was to double exports in five years, and we're well on track.
"But the real engine for that is small-business exports. They are the fastest-growing segment. … Carl here is a great example of the story of exporting."
But Larson said his story is an example of something else: the recoveryless recovery. After past recessions, pent-up demand helped bolster his business. Not so much this time.
"Sometimes coming out of a recession, I've had the best years of my life," he said. "But it's not happening — yet. It's a slow recovery."
Larson's business is built around reselling used semitrailers for a fraction of the six-figure price commanded by new trucks. Before the downturn, Trucks-E-Quip, would buy, sell and distribute up to 1,500 trucks a year. Now that's down to 300.
But at least the company survived. Before the downturn, about 25 percent of his business went overseas. During the downturn, it was 80 to 90 percent. Now domestic and foreign business is evenly split. But foreign business is what kept Trucks-E-Quip alive.
"Except for exports, we probably couldn't have stayed in business because there was no money domestically," Larson said. "Companies weren't doing anything. They were just sitting back on their hands, hoping things would change."
Larson's company, which includes five employees, also got a $2 million loan from C1 Bank. Larson and one of his employees, Nelson Brown, said they know plenty of truckers who got squeezed during the recession and now can't get the loans they need to get back into the business.
"We live in a capitalist system," said Brown, 61. "But you need capital."
Mills assured both men that SBA could help with that situation. But sequestration won't help any. The automatic federal budget cuts that took effect March 1 will affect the SBA's ability to lend out money, expertise and advice.
"Small businesses are going to feel the cutbacks of sequestration," Mills said.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.