Growing Small Businesses Globally - Export Entrepreneur Spotlight on Zac Fitzgerald, owner of Bake Works

Bake Works has come a long way since Tom Fitzgerald founded Fairlight Bakery in 1996, selling big, three-inch cookies out of the back of a blue ’89 Toyota van. Now, Bake Works employs 50 people in two Vancouver buildings that span 30,000 square feet.

“We probably make about 20 million pieces of food every year,” said Bake Works President and CEO Zac Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald opened Bake Works in 2013 after buying Fairlight from his father. While Bake Works still sells those three-inch cookies, the majority of its business comes from nutrition bars.

About 40 percent of Bake Works’ business comes from co-packing, or contract manufacturing, for companies under other brand names. Portland-based Skout Backcountry, which sells organic energy bars, is one such co-packing deal.

Bake Works also provides breakfast bars to schools throughout the country, including Portland Public Schools.

“Our biggest challenge right now is just keeping up with the growth,” Fitzgerald said. “Trader Joe’s just picked up our Trail Nugget bars. Our sales doubled last year, and that was already a lot to keep up with. And this year we’re probably going to grow that much again.”

Amid all that U.S. growth, though, Fitzgerald is committed to growing internationally, too. He grew up in Argentina, so he’s always had a global mindset.

Bake Works already exports a small amount of product to South Africa, but Fitzgerald, with his eyes on Europe, Australia, New Zealand and possibly China, applied for Greater Portland Inc’s Growing Small Businesses Globally export training scholarship.

He was hoping the program would connect him with lots of resources, and he got just that from the Growing Small Businesses Globally export assistance program.

“The program showed me where to find the right information at the right time,” he said, “and introduced me to lingo, terms and jargon. It was great to have the basic explanations and learn how to communicate in that world.”

Lloyd Purdy, Vice President of Competitiveness at Greater Portland Inc, praised Fitzgerald for thinking ahead.

“Bake Works has the happy problem of growing really quickly,” Purdy said. “As hard as it is to think about international sales on top of everything else, this is the best time for Bake Works to make this move. Wait too long, and you’ll lose your competitive edge in the global market.”

In late July, Fitzgerald and his team are headed to Denver for the annual conference of outdoor retailers, where the market for nutrition bars is sure to be large.

Fitzgerald says the 30-hour global trade management from the Small Business Development Center and Portland Community College, part of Greater Portland Inc’s Growing Small Businesses Globally export assistance program, was enormously helpful.

“That was kind of my first big exposure to the nitty-gritty of import-export,” he said. “By far the most valuable part of it were the anecdotes. The individual stories the faculty members had about import-export were incredibly helpful.”

One such story described a company loading machines onto boats, only to have them arrive at a port that did not have a crane large enough to haul the machines away.

“The faculty introduced me to really practical considerations about the mechanics of getting something into the market without any hiccups,” he said.

Fitzgerald said the class opened his eyes to the importance of preparation when it comes to exporting.

“Do your homework and take the course, because you need to know the risks, you need to know the lingo,” he said. “Think practically: How you will get your product from point A to point B? Be intentional about it.”

Fitzgerald says he plans to use a template provided to him during the global trade management class to create an export growth plan for Bake Works.

“We want to find time to create goals and get an export plan down on paper,” he said.

Greater Portland Inc is working with the region’s export partners — including the U.S. Commercial Service, the Small Business Administration, the Small Business Development Center and Business Oregon — to deliver the essential education business owners need before they embark upon their first international sales experience.

Through an export advising passport, created for this program, each participating entrepreneur advances through a self-guided curriculum using this array of export advising services to prepare for international sales.

Upon completion of each training, counseling and advising session, Growing Small Businesses Globally entrepreneurs like Fitzgerald also receive a contribution to a travel fund to help cover the cost of their first international sales experience. Success in international sales requires a plan. The goal of this program is to prepare entrepreneurs for international sales in advance of their first international deal.