By John Lawrence

Despite possessing unparalleled infrastructure for international trade, the Memphis Region rarely promotes this infrastructure strategically and provides little export business assistance.

An export plan is needed to take greater advantage of assets, help companies start exporting and reach additional markets, and market regional assets externally.  However, the first step is to establish a team of comparable size and strength to peer regions.

The Memphis MSA ranks 28th among U.S. metropolitan areas for growth-rate of export related jobs at 32.4% between 2003 and 2010.  Total export output growth over the same period has been 50.4% compared to 43.7% for the top 100 metros.


This is a Great Opportunity

More than 9% of regional output is in exports.  Almost 7% of regional employment is related to exports.

The most obvious connection to foreign markets rests with Memphis International Airport.  As the original hub for FedEx operations, Memphis International is the world’s second largest cargo airport.  Products can be delivered to and from over 375 destinations daily.

Major highways serve the coasts, Canada and Mexico from Memphis.  The Port of Memphis provides access to traffic leading to and from the Port of New Orleans’ Gulf of Mexico exit point.  And, five Class 1 railroads could be critical to future connections for exit points to Asia, to Europe and to South America.

Large and growing regional export industries include: machinery, chemicals, medical equipment & sporting goods, paper, business services, travel & tourism, royalties and food.  Medical equipment and HVAC equipment are products with particularly robust growth.

Grain, fertilizer, petroleum products, dry bulk commodities including cement, sand, stone and steel products comprise the largest amount of cargo handled at the Port of Memphis on the Mississippi River.

The Memphis region’s largest trading destinations are Canada, Mexico, Japan, The United Kingdom, China and Germany.  Over 50% of all exports from the area go to these countries.  However, destinations with high market potential are also importing U.S. products that could originate from the Metro-Memphis area.

Machinery, Electronic Equipment, Medical Equipment and Chemicals are in high demand.  Countries like Brazil, China, India, Russia, Thailand and Turkey are importing from the United State but not necessarily from the Memphis region.

We Must Engage Our Assets

The region has extensive exporting infrastructure assets in road, river, rail, and runway.  Exporting output and exporting employment is growing faster than the top 100 metros and US average.  However, exporting still lags as a percentage of the total local economy.  The region has very slow export growth to high-growth economies such as BRICS nations.  The Memphis region has very limited export assistance resources and marketing capability.


Memphis MSA

Top 100 Metros

USA Average

% of Total Economy 2010




Output Growth 2003-2010




Job Intensity 2010




Job Growth 2003-2010




Beyond companies with specific exporting knowledge, much of the regional export activity is driven by wholesalers or exporting services.  And, there are fewer public export assistance representatives here than competing metros, national exporting centers and in-state rivals.

The Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce’s International Business Council, State of Tennessee Department of Economic & Community Development and the Memphis U.S. Export Assistance Center conduct some promotional trade missions.  However, there is little definable external market promotion tied to international capabilities.

The State of Tennessee Office of Economic and Community Development recently re-launched an International Division with offices in Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany and China.  Three development and assistance officers are working across the entire state.  But regular and aggressive attention to southwest Tennessee’s potential is needed.

There is one U.S. Department of Commerce Trade Officer assigned to the region, representing the only public sector official providing business assistance to small and medium sized businesses with exporting potential.  In a market with such strong assets and with existing exporting output ranging from $5.4 billion (as defined by Brookings) to $11.1 billion (as defined by the International Trade Commission), one business assistance professional is far too few.

The Series:

Part One: Creating a Process on Economic Development

Part Two: Securing the Global Logistics Brand

Part Three: Diversifying the Economy Beyond Logistics

Part Five: Building a New Manufacturing Economy Workforce – Thursday (10/3/13)

Part Six: Organizing for Innovative Entrepreneurial Growth – Monday (10/7/13)

Part Seven: Connecting Jobs, Workers, Institutions & Activity Centers – Wednesday (10/9/13)

Part Eight: Tracking the Market to Understand Emerging Opportunities – Monday (10/14/13)

Part Nine: Prioritizing First-Step Initiatives – Wednesday (10/16/13)