Family-owned food distributor wins SBA Northwest Region Exporter of the Year

BELLEVUE, Wash.—Pacific Valley Foods of Bellevue has been named the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) 2020 Pacific Northwest Region Small Business Exporter of the Year. Pacific Valley Foods was chosen from exporters in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington and is one of 10 finalists for the SBA National Exporter of the Year Award.

The family-owned business was originally founded in 1975 by husband and wife team Scott and Lynn Hannah to distribute frozen foods processed in Washington state to markets across the U.S.

Today nearly 95% of their total sales are international and the company is headed by son John Hannah, president, and daughter Susan Hannah, senior vice president.

Starting in the basement of their family home, the business has grown into a multi-million-dollar food distribution company with 11 employees and offices in China, Japan, Europe and New Zealand to help manage accounts in more than 25 different countries.

They both say it was their mother who led the way into exporting when she followed up on a lead that a distributor in Japan was interested in their line of frozen broccoli. It was a bold move for two reasons. One, it was unusual for a woman to be involved in trade deals in the late 1970s and two, Asia was not a big market for frozen vegetables.

Their parents closed the deal after hopping on a plane and flying to Japan to meet with the distributor face-to-face and the lesson of that story has guided the company for more than four decades.

“It’s the relationships we have with our customers who become our friends as well,” Susan said. “It’s the bedrock of our company.” In fact, Susan said, she and her brother have known some of their overseas trading partners for decades.

“Family is very important in other cultures, so I think that is one thing that has resonated with our buyers in other cultures,” she said. “They see the bond of our family and appreciate that extra dimension it brings to the business.”

With that first contract for frozen broccoli, the Hannahs became one of that first U.S. companies to export frozen foods to Japan. In 1981 they began supplying the second largest retailer in Japan with French fries made from potatoes grown and processed in Washington State. Several years later, John and his father jumped on a plane to close a deal to supply frozen vegetables for a global restaurant chain in China. That’s when they began focusing on export and haven’t looked back.

Establishing trust is essential, John said. When people fail at exporting, he said, it’s often because “they don’t follow through on the final step of getting on a plane and flying to the country to meet face to face.” Meeting in person isn’t optional, John said, “in our business it’s required.”

The Hannahs were nominated for the SBA award by Ellie He, an international trade business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

Scott and Lynn Hannah, owners, Pacific Valley Foods

Pacific Valley Foods has a distinct company culture, said Ellie He, who has worked with the Hannahs for the past nine months. “It’s the most human, humble, and open-minded exporter I have worked with,” she said. “I believe it is their secret to success.”

Because establishing trust with potential trading partners is so critical, the Hannahs applied for a grant through the SBA-funded State Trade Expansion Program (STEP) administered by the  Washington Department of Commerce to attend a food trade show in Indonesia in 2018. As a Pacific Rim country, Indonesia is a logical market for exports from Washington state, but the Hannah’s didn’t have contacts there and were having trouble getting a toe hold. The STEP grant helped defray the cost of the trip and was an important first step in making connections and establishing their company credentials.

The pandemic has interrupted trade all over the world, including the progress they were making in Indonesia, but that’s the way of international trade. It’s always something.

Earlier this year Pacific Valley Foods applied for and received an SBA Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan to keep their employees on staff while they pursue strategies for replacing lost revenue. While sales have slowed, they continue to be in regular contact with long-time customers and they continue to look for new opportunities.

The world of export is huge, John said, so trying to figure out where to focus their energy is always an issue. “Which product? Which market?” John said. “That’s always our main challenge.”

With Ellie He’s assistance, they requested a report from the Washington SBDC market intelligence research team to help them make those decisions. “Their team did a really nice market research report for us,” he said.

The Washington SBDC has been assisting entrepreneurs and small business owners in good times and bad since 1980. SBDC advising services are provided at no cost and are confidential and tailored to the needs of each SBDC client. The Washington SBDC is a network of more than 30 business advisors working in communities across the state to assist small business owners and entrepreneurs who want to start, grow or buy/sell a business.

Washington State University (WSU) is the statewide host of the Washington SBDC and funding for SBDC services are provided  by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), WSU, and other institutions of higher education, economic development and civic and business organizations, including chambers and ports.

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