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Going the distance

October 31st, 2014

News Coverage:

Going the distance

Regional business leaders travel to Japan to attract growth for region

Posted: Thursday, October 30, 2014 11:00 pm

By Peter Ambrose and Barry Rochford

pambrose@kpcmedia.com and brochford@kpcmedia.com

The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership relied on a personal touch to strengthen business relationships during a recent voyage overseas.

A small delegation of representatives from the partnership, Fort Wayne Metals and Indiana Michigan Power, as well as Keith Gillenwater, the head of the LaGrange County Economic Development Corp., made a business development trip to Japan from Sept. 26 to Oct. 4, visiting the cities of Tokyo, Shizuoka, Osaka and Hiroshima.

The group met with 11 Japanese companies, including four that already have operations in the region, according to John Sampson, president and CEO of the Regional Partnership.

The purpose of taking the trip in person gives the group an opportunity to meet with executives face-to-face and develop a deeper rapport for doing business, he said. The companies are more willing to open up in person and ask about incentives aligned to their needs.

The act of expressing appreciation for their business is also key.

“I think the calls are important because you make the effort to thank the company for making a significant investment in the community,” Sampson said.

The meetings could pay off for northeast Indiana if or when any of those businesses decide to make new investments in the U.S.

Sampson said some of them are considering such a move in this region, though he couldn’t say which.

The group’s stops included Nishikawa Rubber Co., the parent of Nishikawa Cooper LLC in Topeka as part of a joint venture with Novi, Mich.-based Cooper-Standard Holdings Inc. The company, which makes sealing systems for automotive manufacturers, is LaGrange County’s second-largest employer with about 450 workers, Gillenwater said.

Since 2012, Nishikawa Cooper has announced two equipment expansions at its Topeka plant and headquarters, totaling more than $14 million.

“You start building a relationship, and when it comes time to do a project, they’re going to remember that you bothered to come halfway around the world to meet with them,” Gillenwater said.

The delegation members also introduced themselves to several other companies that do not currently operate here but are considering investments in the Midwest, Sampson said. They focused on vehicle manufacturing, food processing and distribution logistics businesses.

The meetings didn’t produce any firm commitments, but they did get northeast Indiana’s foot in the door.

Indiana Michigan Power contributed much of the funding for the trip.

Rob Cleveland, I&M’s economic development and community relations manager, represented the company in the delegation and lent his skills to the meetings with several of the companies, I&M spokesman Tracy Warner said.

“I&M believes very strongly in economic development in the area,” he said. “We were happy to be the lead partner of the trip.”

Having an executive from the electricity provider to discuss utility service and its rates with manufacturers, where energy costs are a chief concern, was a helpful asset in selling the region, Sampson said.

The delegation also included a representative from Fort Wayne Metals. This member, a Japanese national who’s lived in the area for years with a business background in both Japan and the U.S., helped facilitate meetings with several of the companies, Sampson said.

Nurturing ties with Japan is important for the region, according to economic development professionals, because eight Japanese companies have manufacturing operations or their North American headquarters in northeast Indiana.

A report released earlier this year from the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C., states Indiana ranks first in the nation in terms of per-capita investment by Japanese companies, totaling $9.8 billion. Japanese companies also employ 43,000 in Indiana.

Economic development officials say Indiana has made itself more attractive to overseas companies looking to expand. The state’s central location to major markets and efforts to improve the business climate have raised its international profile.

At the same time, the state has expanded its marketing and outreach efforts – for example, opening an Indiana Economic Development Corp. office in Tokyo, which served as a sort of home base for the northeast Indiana delegation on its trip.

While most of the work done by the region’s economic development professionals is focused on helping local businesses grow, northeast Indiana must keep an eye cast toward opportunities that spring up overseas, Sampson said.