Monday, August 23, 2010
Selling Virginia overseas
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The Roanoke Times
Virginia's secretary of commerce and trade, Jim Cheng, along with assistant secretaries Peter Su and Jimmy Rhee, met with business leaders in China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan, and in Cheng's native Taiwan.
The trip cost about $7,500 to $8,000, according to the governor's office. The cost of the trip primarily was borne by taxpayers, although some of the host countries picked up a portion of the bill. Cheng paid half of his airfare personally and stayed in a family apartment in Taiwan to cut down on the cost.
Cheng called the trip a success and said there might be some announcements in the next few months about companies opening or expanding in Virginia. But he also underscored the importance of educating the area's more traditional work force in science, technology, engineering and math to be ready for a new era of business.
Where did you go on your recent trip? How much interest was there from Asian companies?
We went to Beijing, Taiwan, to Hong Kong, Shanghai, to Tokyo and also South Korea. ... We went to a lot of places. I think we found a lot of interest but also a lot of folks, like we thought, didn't know much about Virginia. But we found a lot of interesting companies that were looking for expansion opportunities, looking for opportunities in of course the biggest consumer market in the world, and that is the U.S. ...
We have a lot of education to do. We think we have some opportunities, and of course since they are pretty preliminary, we can't talk about specifics. But a lot of companies with energy projects, things like batteries that have to do with energy storage, generation, even some electric vehicle-type companies. There's a lot of interesting things going on and a lot of interesting manufacturing opportunities but very preliminary for some and others, you know, pretty far along.
We spent a lot of time in Japan. ... We have over 80 Japanese companies in Virginia now. A lot of those are existing companies, and some of them are seeing a little bit of a turnaround in the economy and some of them are thinking of expansion. We want them to expand in Virginia.
People overseas probably know some of the larger U.S. hubs, such as Washington, D.C. But what's the look on their faces when you say "Roanoke" or "Blacksburg"?
[Chuckles] I don't know if there is a funny look on their face or not, but they need to know where that is. And we have to sort of go from, "Well, we're in the Washington, D.C., area and Virginia is connected to Washington."
Everybody knows Thomas Jefferson, everyone knows George Washington, and they say, "Oh yeah, that's right." And they've heard of, if not Williamsburg itself, they know of Williamsburg. And they go, "Oh yeah, it's right next to Washington." And then we pull out the map, we show them what a great location it is, and we show them what a great transportation corridor [Interstate] 81 is. ... So they start to understand why we think Virginia is such a great place, especially the rural parts of Virginia.
Workers here are used to more traditional manufacturing jobs. Do you think it's going to be a problem in the future?
Work force is a big issue for us. We think we do a good job but there's a lot of room for improvement. I don't know that we're totally in the dark about coming up to speed, but any new industry that shows up, we have to be prepared and we have to work on the work force plan. ...
A lot of them understand that they might not have the specific skills especially for newer technologies. Nobody is going to be able walk in and do exactly what they want. ... So it's really teaching the science, technology, engineering and math basics. People understand you're going to have to train them on specific things like that. But I know that our folks are the hardest working in the world and they're very, very ready for training. We need to make them even more ready.
Still, these workers might raise an eyebrow at attempts to bring overseas companies back here, citing concerns about losing their old jobs to foreign manufactures. Do you sense that tide changing?
I would be a little skeptical in getting back a lot of traditional industries, but ... they're bringing in new technologies, new techniques and new materials. Some of it is coming back in a different form. We just have to be ready when that happens. ...
Of course everybody wants jobs that are sustainable, that are long-term. Part of what we are trying to do with work force development is to make sure that we are poised to make sure that we are getting further in down the value chain. We want to be more involved in the high value-added labor, that way it keeps us in the game longer.
When you walk into a room, how do you pitch Virginia?
We found a bottle of Virginia wine helps because a lot people don't think of wine in Virginia. But we are the fifth-largest wine producer in the United States.
People are very surprised to see what a diverse community we have, not just in terms of people but in industries and capabilities. So we walk in and show them why this is such a great region. ...
The port of Hampton Roads -- that's a big, big point of entry for a lot people that need to export or import. Of course, transportation is another issue ... and it's not just us saying that but also recently CNBC placed us number two for business-friendly environment in the United States. Between us and Texas, we've been going back and forth ... and so we have independent evaluators saying that we are a great state to do business in. ...
We can provide all the culture, the diversity of a large city, which we have several of. And then the business friendliness of a more rural community and the work force that comes come with it. And great universities. ... I've had it mentioned to us, the two in particular they talked about are UVa and Tech. One of the companies that we dealt with compared that with the brain power in Massachusetts with MIT. I mean, we can compare favorably to that but our story just doesn't get out. ... A lot of the folks we talked to, especially the higher-end manufacturing companies, they see all our great universities. ... They see that as a great resource.
How does this process work? How do you decide which companies to visit?
There are so many companies over there that we need to qualify them. Obviously companies have to first be interested in doing something in the United States or else we don't want to waste everybody's time on this. We're looking for companies that are looking to relocate either an operation they bought in the United States to a better business climate or are looking to expand what they are doing overseas into the United States, so it depends a lot on where they are coming from. ...
When we do missions like this we generally will have broader seminar-type meetings where we just invite the general business community -- for example, maybe a chamber of commerce or something like that. But what we really prefer are the one-for-one meetings with the companies that have already been vetted and expressed interest.
These trips, they take time, and every time there is a new governor, he has got his own thoughts and ideas. Our governor is very, very proactive and very aggressive in letting the companies know what a great state Virginia is, so what we're trying to do is we're trying to get out there and pave the way for him. ... So far I think we are off to a great start, but it's only just a start.