When Mark Reginelli, director of world trade at 84 Lumber, signed up for a trade mission to Panama, he didn't expect to find himself seated across from the chief contractors of the Panama Canal's $5 billion expansion project just months later.
Mr. Reginelli and the business executives were discussing potential ways that his company could collaborate on the expansion, which is slated to double the canal's capacity by 2015.
The trade mission was organized by Duquesne University's Small Business Development Center. In addition to 84 Lumber, 10 other companies traveled to Panama and Colombia. The development center arranged meetings with government officials and senior business executives in the two countries.
The U.S. Department of Commerce, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and the U.S. Commercial Service designed itineraries for the businesses, tailoring the mission to the individual interests of each company.
For Mr. Reginelli and 84 Lumber, a building materials supply chain based out of Eighty Four in Washington County, the June trip could lead to several multimillion-dollar deals.
Mary McKinney, the director of the Small Business Development Center, said the center chose to head to Panama and Colombia because those countries' markets represent significant trade opportunities for American companies.
"Our mission is to help businesses get started and grow, and trade is, right now, a preferred way on the path toward growth," Ms. McKinney said. "We've always been working with companies, encouraging them to export."
A federal grant from the Small Business Administration covered about three quarters of the in-country mission costs, and companies were offered a stipend to cover some other expenses, Ms. McKinney said.
Businesses applied to participate in the mission this spring. Thirty vied for spots on the trip, with 11 chosen based on the level of opportunity available in their respective industries in the two Latin American countries' markets. Other participants included Carnegie software firm NeuralWare, and Management Science Associates, a Pittsburgh consumer data analytics firm.
The trip has historical precedent: Pennsylvania steel companies provided some of the materials used in the original construction of the Panama Canal, and the Duquesne Small Business Development Center has organized dozens of trade missions in the past three decades, with the most recent in 2007 going to Mexico.
But the mission also has modern urgency: President Barack Obama announced in his 2010 State of the Union address a goal of doubling foreign exports by 2015, and Ms. McKinney said trade missions go a long way in furthering that goal.
In October 2011, Mr. Obama signed a free trade agreement with Panama, Colombia and South Korea -- an agreement widely considered to be the largest American free trade package since the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed 17 years earlier.
Products from the United States currently account for about a third of Panama's imports, and the U.S. is Colombia's top trade partner.
Despite the strong economic ties between the U.S. and the two Latin American nations, participants in the Duquesne trade mission largely did not have previous business experience in the countries they visited.
Melissa Dubinsky, a vice president at the Wilkins civil engineering consulting firm Paul C. Rizzo Associates, said the trip proved valuable because she and a colleague got to meet with government officials who work in the energy and environment sectors.
Although Rizzo has offices in South America, the firm has not entered the Panamanian or Colombian markets, and Ms. Dubinsky said it was helpful to learn firsthand about those countries' strategic plans.
Ms. Dubinsky said she could not have organized a trip as efficient and cost-effective on her own. "I think when you have the U.S. Commercial Service making these phone calls, there's a certain 'sit up and take notice,'" she said.
The trip last month was Mr. Reginelli's first trade mission, but he said he sees more in his future.
"I always doubted the level of a trade mission," he said. "But after the trip, I immediately came back and started looking at more trade missions."
Daniel Sisgoreo: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1410 or on Twitter @DanielSisgoreo.