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Columbus-area connections were plentiful during visits last month to Japan and China by state and local officials, but it may be months before tangible benefits materialize in terms of jobs or new corporate investments in the city.
“You’re not going to come back from one of these trips with a suitcase full of jobs,” said Mike Kern of Columbus, vice president of Gaylor Inc., an electrical contractor that works closely with Japanese auto industry clients. “You have to meet Asian business and government leaders three times before you even start talking business.”
Kern accompanied Gov. Mike Pence on his nine-day Japanese trip, which made stops in Tokyo, Nagoya and Ota.
Pence, the Columbus native who was leading his first economic development trip to Asia, planted a friendship tree in Ota and pledged to keep Indiana “business friendly” at each of his entourage’s stops. He promised to build a Japanese-style garden in Indiana to serve as a cultural gateway between the U.S. and Japan.
While abroad, he also hinted that Heartland Automotive LLC, a subsidiary of Japan’s Shigeru Company Ltd., would be adding jobs in Indiana. Two weeks after Pence returned to the state capital, the company announced it would expand operations in Lafayette and create as many as 224 new jobs by 2016.
Pence met with Shigeru officials in their home city of Ota during the trip, and he had been told privately that the firm would be announcing a major expansion soon.
A small group of Columbus business and educational leaders piggybacked on the Pence trip with a seven-day tour of key cities in China, including the Wuhan Economic and Technological Development Zone, an industrial area where Columbus-based Cummins Inc. has operations.
Jason Hester, executive director of the Columbus Economic Development Board, and several other local leaders met with numerous Chinese companies to lay the groundwork for future investments or trade.
Sue Smith, corporate executive for advanced manufacturing at Ivy Tech Community College — Columbus/Franklin, said she was able to beef up educational links with Ivy Tech’s Chinese sister college, the Wuxi Professional College of Science and Technology.
Smith said she also remains interested in developing a second sister college in China that could conduct faculty and student exchanges just as Ivy Tech and Wuxi have started to do.
Two faculty members from Wuxi, in fact, just wrapped up a one-month visit to Ivy Tech two weeks ago.
“Things don’t go so quickly in China; you have to build up trust,” Smith said.
Smith said she went on some corporate meetings with Hester and fellow Columbus emissaries Ryan Hou, co-founder of LHP Software, and Hou’s wife, Jean Hou, a former Cummins executive who served as a translator at times for Smith’s educational meetings.
The Columbus group visited Shanghai in addition to Wuxi and the Wuhan trade zone.
“There’s lots of opportunity for us in the industrial zone,” said Smith, adding that Ivy Tech is working with the Wuxi Professional College faculty on setting up particular training programs for manufacturers with operations in the trade zone.
The 74-square-mile area is home to numerous automotive and high-tech companies that make an array of machinery, pharmaceuticals and electronics.
Smith said Ivy Tech has a long-range goal of developing student exchanges with Wuxi Professional College that will let students start taking Ivy Tech courses online for their first year and then do a second year on the Columbus campus to earn an associate’s degree.
The next faculty exchange will include four professors from Ivy Tech going to China and four Wuxi teachers coming to Columbus, Smith said.
English, math, industrial technology or a related field and graphic design are among areas being considered, Smith said.
One unexpected hurdle in getting student exchanges up and running is the difficulty of securing student visas to visit the U.S.
The U.S. government shutdown, for the moment, has brought a halt to visa applications being considered, but Smith said even in normal times it can sometimes take two years and multiple applications for a Chinese student to gain approval to study in the U.S.
“Half the students who apply are rejected the first time,” Smith said.
Starting an Ivy Tech degree online for the first year of studies would be one clever way to work around any visa delays, Smith suggested. A student would work their way through the immigration process over 12 months, if need be, while already taking U.S. courses.
Tom Pellman, an Indiana University graduate who lives in Beijing, works as a market intelligence analyst for Vestas Wind Systems, an energy company. He has eight years of experience doing business in China.
Pellman, who will make a presentation on doing business in China to the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday morning, said health care, telecommunications and renewable energy are among the best opportunities for U.S. corporations to invest in China today.
One catch is that these fields are considered strategic industries by the Chinese government, and foreign investment can only occur via joint ventures with a Chinese company.
A few less strategic businesses — retail sales or beverages, for instance — can be set up as wholly owned foreign entities, he said.
Pellman said the U.S. government shutdown has sent shock waves through China, although he doubts it will deter investment by Chinese businesses in the U.S. over the long haul.
“It has caused bewilderment in China,” Pellman said. “The leadership doesn’t even see how this could happen to the world’s No. 1 economy. To see the battle so far out in the public eye is confusing to them. In China, all the public policy decisions happen behind closed doors.”
As is true in China, success landing business deals doesn’t happen overnight in Japan either, trade experts say.
But Kern, the Gaylor Inc. executive who has made several trips to Asia, gave Pence high marks for his first economic development trip to the island nation.
“I’ve been on three other Asian trips with former Gov. Mitch Daniels, and I found Gov. Pence very respectful of what Daniels had done in the past. Pence wants to build on that,” said Kern, whose company does electrical work for a number of Japanese manufacturers in Indiana.
Kern said he has learned to appreciate the Japanese business culture and to adapt to its take-
it-slow approach. Business meetings are also very formal, he said.
“People dress up in suits and ties. They take the time to get to know you. It’s all about you, not them,” Kern said. “I wish we could have some of that culture and respect here in the U.S.”
Kern said it’s easy for newcomers to make silly mistakes in business etiquette when they first go to Japan, but state economic development officials generally do a good job briefing trade mission participants on proper protocol.
A few years ago, Kern said he messed up when he avoided taking a seat at the head of a long table where his group was about to have a meeting with Japanese officials. Instead, he sat on the side and in the middle of the rectangular table away from the door.
“I didn’t want to seem presumptuous by sitting at the head at the table, but it turns out that the seat at the center (on the side) is the place of honor. And I took it,” Kern said sheepishly. “Most of the time you learn by what you’ve done wrong.”
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