A two-week trade mission to Japan and China by Columbus’ mayor and top economic official is on the verge of producing more investment in the city.

Mayor Jim Lienhoop and Jason Hester, president of the Greater Columbus Economic Development Corp., had a confidential meeting in Japan with officials of one of the 27 Japanese companies that operate in Columbus. The company wants to expand its Columbus operations, which the city representatives say should happen within the next six months.

“We’ve been working with their local team for several months,” Hester said.

With an economic development trip to Asia already planned, this was an opportunity “to close the deal with their decision-makers,” Hester said.

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The first leg of the trip began when Lienhoop and Hester arrived in Japan on Sept. 9. They began their China portion Sept. 16, with a different focus for time spent in each country.

Their time in Japan was spent primarily with the Indiana delegation, led by Gov. Eric Holcomb, during the Midwest U.S.-Japan Association Conference. The Columbus officials attended to support the governor’s efforts and relationship building during his first trade mission to the country.

It was Lienhoop’s fourth trip to Japan and the eighth for Hester.

The primary focus of the China portion of the trip was attracting new investment, and the Columbus representatives came back with several good leads, Lienhoop said.

Business relationships

The Japan leg was about relationship building on multiple levels.

Lienhoop and Hester met with officials of companies already operating in Columbus, such as NTN and Toyota Industries officials, including Toyota’s chairman.

“It was a great opportunity to let him know we appreciate Toyota’s investment in the community. We had just participated in the 50th’s anniversary of Toyota (selling forklifts in the U.S.),” Lienhoop said, referencing an August celebration in Columbus, where Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing has made forklifts since 1990.

Meetings with Japanese companies included discussions about what Columbus could do better to support the companies’ success. The labor force, housing and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education were among the discussion points, the mayor said.

“The STEM discussion was important to them because they are looking for skilled workers,” Lienhoop said, referencing a demand that outpaces supply locally.

Japanese companies — which employ about 6,000 workers in Columbus — are focused on those needs and looking to Columbus officials to come up with solutions, Hester said.

Hester said he and the mayor shared with Japanese company officials the city’s talent-attraction campaign, as well as efforts to improve STEM education, housing availability and transportation.

Lienhoop and Hester said they used the trip not only to further strengthen relationships with Japanese companies, but to continue to build a relationship with Gov. Holcomb and his staff.

That’s important for the future, they said.

“We know it can be beneficial in a number of areas,” Lienhoop said. “We want to be top of mind with the governor and the administration.”

Personal relationships

Not all relationship matters were about business.

The mayor and Hester traveled to Miyoshi, Columbus’ sister city since 1994, where they toured a junior high school and met with students, teachers and school administrators. They also met with Miyoshi city officials.

Those bonds tightened a bit during Lienhoop’s and Hester’s stay in Japan when North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Hokkaido, one of Japan’s northern islands, for the second time in a month.

Hester said that experience made him realize how different it is to hear such news from the comforts of home in Columbus.

Lienhoop said Columbus’ close ties to Japan added to the concern and prompted questions to the Columbus pair about the United States’ commitment to Japan’s defense.

“We are very concerned about their safety, and they seemed to understand that national defense is not our area. But they appreciated the understanding of the concern,” the mayor said.

New approach

Lienhoop and Hester said they used a more targeted approach this year to investment recruiting than when on previous trips to China, seeking meetings only with companies interested in setting up operations in North America.

That produced talks with 11 confidential prospects.

“By focusing our efforts on companies that already have customers here and are shipping products here, they were good prospects to talk about serving customers from a U.S. location,” Hester said.

Lienhoop and Hester said they feel confident that two of the companies — both in manufacturing — will set up operations somewhere in the U.S. in the near future — giving them further opportunity to sell Columbus as the best location.

They also had an introductory meeting with e-commerce company Alibaba, which Hester described as the Amazon or Google of China.

Trip highlights

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop and Greater Columbus Economic Development Corp. President Jason Hester traveled to Japan and China in September on a trade mission intended to build relationships and attract foreign investment in Columbus. Here are highlights of that trip:

Japan (Sept. 9-15)

Participated in the Indiana delegation’s efforts, led by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, during the Midwest U.S.-Japan Association 2017 Conference

Business networking

Met with representatives of Toyota Industries

Business dinner with NTN officials

Meeting with confidential company

Business dinner with executives of parent company for Rightway Fasteners

Attended Friends of Indiana receptions in Tokyo and Nagoya

Met with officials of sister city Miyoshi and visited Minami Junio High School in Miyoshi

China (Sept. 16-23)

Accompanied by Columbus businessman Ryan Hou and his wife, Jean Hou

Dinner meeting with Dongfeng Motor Import/Export Co. in Shanghai

Met with officials of friendship city Huzhou

Business meetings with 12 confidential prospects

Business meeting with Alibaba

Met with Zhejiang provincial officials

Met with trade associations for machinery and pharmaceuticals in Beijing

Author photo
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at johannesen@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5639.