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Louisiana lumber firm counts Libya as its top customer

Marketplace Contributor Aug 20, 2012

Louisiana lumber firm counts Libya as its top customer

Marketplace Contributor Aug 20, 2012

Tess Vigeland: One year ago this week, the Gaddafi regime fell in Libya. Political stability continues to elude the country. Over the weekend, bomb attacks in Tripoli killed two people. And today an Egyptian diplomat’s car blew up in Benghazi; no one was hurt.

But while Libya’s economy has struggled in the last 12 months, it’s starting to find its footing. In fact, it’s a growing market for U.S. exports. So what’s it like to do business in Libya?

Red River Radio’s Kate Archer Kent has the story of a tiny Louisiana sawmill with an answer.

Kate Archer Kent: Lumber is being graded and stacked for shipment at a family-owned sawmill in the tiny town of Coushatta, La. Twenty-four million feet of lumber is manufactured here each year. It’s stamped with “Made in USA.” Almond Brothers Lumber is an exporter. Much of this is destined for the Libyan port of Misrata.

William Almond: We’ve done a lot to promote the Southern yellow pine in that market.

The Southern yellow pine from this mill, co-owned by William Almond, is used for things like exposed beams, window frames, and stair railings in Libya. Its golden color and natural grain appeals to customers there, and it holds up well in the Libyan climate. Almond has never been to the country. He works through approved agents – in Switzerland and Austria – who help get his goods to market. Through the years, he’s developed a strong customer base, before sanctions went into place in 1992 and after the U.S. lifted them in 2004.

Almond: We were shipping millions of feet back into Libya. It became our No. 1 country until the Arab Spring hit.

Almond put his own money into the business last year to prevent laying off his 87 employees. That proved to be a good move. Libyan exports are picking up.

Francisco Sanchez is the undersecretary for international trade at the Commerce Department. He says Libya needs goods and services that can be supplied by American companies.

Francisco Sanchez: Some of this very, very basic that they’re going to need. Power generation, water treatment, the kind of typical things that you would need in any municipality.

Libya’s economy shrank last year during the unrest. But today, Libya is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Independent Libya scholar Ronald Bruce St John says the country has money in the bank to start major infrastructure repairs. That’s due in part to its rich oil reserves and assets hoarded by the Gaddafi regime that can now be spent.

Ronald Bruce St John: I think trade and investment opportunities in Libya will multiply because there’s enormous pent up demand within Libya for the kinds of things that the United States and Western Europe can provide.

Things like Southern yellow pine. William Almond says he used a lull during the holy month of Ramadan to beef up inventory. He’s expecting to ship out hundreds of thousands of dollars of 2-by-4s in the coming weeks, and he’s confident that his Libyan customers will make good on payments.

I’m Kate Archer Kent for Marketplace.

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