Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown’s first trip to Asia on behalf of the city and its economic interests resulted in the opening of a Columbus office in a large Chinese economic zone and identification of a dozen investment prospects, several of which are considered strong leads.
Brown and Columbus Economic Development Board President Jason Hester traveled to Japan and China during a two-week period during the latter half of October.
Brown and Hester were part of a delegation of mayors and economic development officials from south-central Indiana cities that traveled to Japan. Afterward, they were part of a Columbus-only delegation to China that included Ryan Hou, CEO of LHP Software, Jean Hou, an executive with Cummins Inc., and Sue Smith, corporate executive for advanced manufacturing with Ivy Tech Community College.
Each leg of the trip had a different mission, according to Hester:
In Japan, it was to introduce the new Columbus mayor to officials from some of the 21 Japanese companies that have operations in Columbus, looking to retain and expand on those relationships.
In China, the purpose was business recruitment and development of Columbus’ relationships with its sister and friendship cities.
“It was helpful for me to get the lay of the land to help our strategy in their countries going forward,” Brown said.
Columbus, which sent its first delegation to China in 1998, signed a Friendship City agreement in May with Wuhan, a Chinese city of more than 10 million people. The Wuhan Economic and Technological Development Zone covers 74 square miles and is home to dozens of global companies. It is nearly three times the size of Columbus.
The Wuhan zone focuses on automotive and high-tech industries, including machinery, electronics and pharmaceuticals. Columbus-based Cummins Inc. has a strong local connection because of its research and development center there.
The city’s relationship with Wuhan resulted in Columbus gaining an official office in that economic zone during the trip. Its grand opening was Oct. 24, six days into the China visit.
“The hope is it will be a cultural exchange and a business exchange,” Hester said. “If one of our companies decided to invest in China, (Wuhan) would like to be on the short list. And, it’s similar with us. If one of their companies grew and wanted to invest (in the United States), we’d like to be on the short list.”
Columbus will have a paid representative in the Wuhan office working to develop relationships with business and government leaders, and explore investment opportunities, Hester said. The representative will be paid by the Columbus Economic Development Board.
Brown said Chinese companies that face high import tariffs by the U.S. and those in the automotive industry might consider Columbus as a base of operation in the U.S. Chinese companies involved in aluminum extrusion, solar technology, steel pipes and copper tubing now face high tariffs for importing to the U.S., Brown said.
Opening a plant here could be cheaper, she said.
Chinese companies that manufacture farm and mining equipment, trucks and buses could market “Made in the U.S.A.” by having final assembly plants here and also could benefit by using Cummins engines in those products, said Brown, who replaced retiring four-term Mayor Fred Armstrong in January.
“As we go ahead, we need to play to our strengths,” Brown said of the city’s ties to the automotive industry and Cummins’ contacts and strong reputation in China.
Brown and Hester learned of a variety of economic investment opportunities, including:
A Japanese materials manufacturing company that is considering where to locate its first North American manufacturing operations within the next two years.
A Chinese tool-manufacturing company that has a sales office in Chicago. Brown and Hester discussed the advantages of establishing a manufacturing operation in Columbus.
A Chinese company that makes material-handling equipment, such as pallet jacks and electric-powered lifts, that has a sales office in California but no U.S. manufacturing operation.
“We came away from this trip with two or three significant short- to mid-term opportunities, each with the potential to make an investment somewhere in the U.S. within two years,” Hester said. “These are leads that we are guarding closely and will be pursuing over the next several months.”
Hester said the city’s strategic goal is to attract well-paying, high-value-added businesses by leveraging the city’s capabilities in advanced manufacturing, engineering and design.
Brown said the meetings to strengthen relationships with company executives and government officials were formal, and their hosts went to great lengths to provide ample time to meet and treat them to fine meals.
She learned that both countries have a lot of respect for mayors. The formal meetings reflected that respect, as the most senior person in the Japanese or Chinese delegation would sit closest to Mayor Brown. Members of both groups then would fan out somewhat according to rank in large rooms.
Brown appointed Ryan Hou as a deputy mayor for the trip, to help with Columbus’ representation. Hou, who was born in Taiwan, is fluent in Chinese and English. Former Mayor Armstrong had also made Hou a deputy mayor on previous trips to China.
“Government officials are very important in China,” Hou said.
Translators helped Brown and her Japanese and Chinese counterparts
“I think it was very productive,” Brown said of the trip. “It gave me a better sense to direct our future efforts in both of those countries.”
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