The strong dollar has proved a formidable adversary for U.S. companies that are interested in developing new markets. But it shouldn't stop exporters from taking the crucial first step in setting up an exporting network -- developing contacts abroad. Finding these contacts can take a year or more, but the payoff, as Murray Shields discovered, can be significant.

Shields, vice-president for international sales at ADM Technology Inc., a manufacturer of radio, television, and film production equipment, was asked a year ago to head up the Troy, Mich.-based company's export initiative. Using a combination of government-sponsored programs and his own aggressive follow-up, Shields has brought ADM to the point at which nearly 30% of its $5 million in annual sales comes from exports to six countries.

Shields's offensive took him first to the U.S. Department of Commerce district office in Detroit, where he submitted a description of the kind of agent he needed to represent his company abroad. Using a list of names collected by Commerce officials through U.S. consulates and embassies overseas, Shields requested World Trade Data Reports (at $75 apiece) on each, including information on a candidate's customers, bank references, estimated sales volume, and assets. "I then narrowed it down to three agents per country," Shields says. It wasn't always difficult. In Korea, for example, one agent handled farm animals, feed, and earth-moving equipment in addition to electronics. That one Shields crossed off the list. He next visited the final candidates in person. "I asked each agent to introduce me to some of his customers to see what the relationship was like. And then I made the decision right there."

Shields initiated other contacts by asking U.S. manufacturers in his industry that make noncompetitive products for the names of their own agents. "Sometimes they'll share information, sometimes they won't." In addition, he scanned trade magazines that list overseas agents, contacting the most promising ones by telex or mail.

Once these relationships are set up, the key is keeping in touch, Shield says. As a one-man international marketing department, he spends about four to five months a year traveling overseas. "You must be seen continuously by these people to show them the flag and say, 'Remember us.' They may not have sold anything for you since you saw them last, but you want them to keep trying."