During Latvia’s boom years, our exports never exceeded imports. Last year, during the peak of the economic crisis, they did. What gives? A look at some of our top exporting companies offers some surprising clues.

At the end of 2009, 29 highly successful and respected Latvian companies competed for top prizes in the annual Latvian Export and Innovation Award competition. Somehow the words “highly successful” and “economic crisis” do not seem to belong in the same year, no less the same country, but in 2009 Latvia experienced both.

Thanks to the Ministry of Economics and the Latvian Investment and Development Agency, I participated in the jury that had the rare privilege of seeing firsthand how some of Latvia’s most innovative exporters are defying expectations on a  routine basis.

Some may rely on numbers and macroeconomic factors to explain success, but when you visit a company like Dores fabrika Ltd. near CÄ“sis you realize that tradition, innovation and integrity remain an unbeatable formula. Dores fabrika applies ingenious new technologies to the beloved tradition of log houses to produce stunning, eco-friendly, energy-efficient homes that dazzle the eye and warm the cockles of any heart. Even the Norwegians, global leaders in log house construction, have been impressed.

Norwegians, Swedes and Danes are also impressed by the books that are being produced by Livonia Print Ltd. So much so, that almost 90% of what this state-of art printing plant and bindery produces in Riga ends up on Scandinavian shelves. It would be undiplomatic to mention which royal families regularly turn to Livonia Print to print their life stories, but clearly the price and quality are up to regal standards.

When the Scandinavian kings and queens visit some of their leading manufacturers, chances are that the red carpet was laid down over Prime Composite concrete floors produced by Primekss Ltd. Primekss has literally re-invented the concrete floor, making it thinner, tougher, more durable and totally seamless. The fact that producing Primekss concrete floors generates 30-50% less Co2 emissions makes them even more popular in the eco-conscious Baltic Sea Region. Latvians, Estonians and Poles are the first continental Europeans to start building with Primekss concrete, but sooner or later, the rest of “Old Europe” should get the hint.

However, it’s not only Scandinavians that are upping the numbers of Latvian exports. It appears that the Italians are the prime consumers of Monterigo cheese, produced by Limbažu piens Ltd. This hard cheese is aged for 18 months and is remarkably similar to something that looks, smells and tastes like – but can’t be called – parmesan cheese. So much so, that the Italians are re-packaging it and exporting it to the UK. (Don’t tell the Brits.)

While most of Latvia’s exporters are doing well in the EU and many continue to expand their traditional markets in Russia and other parts of the former USSR, one Latvian company is beginning to clean-up, so to speak, in China. Stenders Ltd. has 190 franchise stores around the world selling their distinctive soaps, bath balls and body cosmetics, and 20 of them are in China. Not only is the market huge, the Chinese prefer to purchase their bars of Stender’s soap in “Great Wall’’ sizes.

Notwithstanding the global success of many Latvian exporters, one Riga-based company is generating out-of-this-world sales results. Literally. Bruker Baltic Ltd. specializes in the development of, (get ready,) “high-pure germanium and cadmiumzinc-tellurium detectors”. Don’t know what that means? I don’t either, but Bruker has designed their devices for NASA and the European Space Agency, and is presently working on a technical innovation for the next probe to the planet Mercury.

Speaking of long distances, when the film hero E.T. had to “phone home” he had problems making connections. While the Latvian makers of “B-Phone” may not be able to keep you in touch with other planets, they can help you listen in on your baby from anywhere your mobile phone service can reach. Their innovative baby monitoring device calls your mobile phone any time your child moves or makes a sound. You can talk to the toddler as well. The wives and husbands in our jury immediately thought of some other applications for this mobile monitoring device, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.

January 12, 2010