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Jared Hunt column: State ‘tilling the field’ in Japan

State development officials are optimistic a nearly two-week trade mission to Japan will lead to further investment in the state.

Representatives from several county and state-level development organizations have been overseas this month as part of a coordinated trade mission to continue to develop ties between Japanese companies and West Virginia.

Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette, speaking by telephone from his Yokohama hotel room about 5:30 a.m. Thursday (4:30 Wednesday evening, here), said the group has met with dozens of companies in recent days.

“This is a tilling the field kind of trip,” Burdette said. “In some cases, these are early discussions with companies that will ultimately bear fruit.”

The state’s relationship with Japan has certainly borne fruit in recent decades.

Former Gov. Jay Rockefeller was instrumental in fostering ties between the state and Japanese companies. That led to the first investment by Wheeling-Nisshin in Follansbee in 1986.

The state stepped up its game by opening a permanent international office in Nagoya. That office will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year.

Over the years, Toyota, Diamond Electric, Nippon Thermostat, NGK Spark Plugs, Hino Motors and more than a dozen other companies have invested nearly $2.5 billion in the state.

There are now 20 Japanese companies operating in West Virginia today. They currently employ about 2,500 West Virginians — a number state officials hope will soon grow.

Accompanying Burdette are state Development Office International Division Director Steve Spence, business retention and expansion manager David Lieving, Charleston Area Alliance president Matt Ballard, Putnam County Development Authority Executive Director Andrew Dunlap and Jackson County Development Authority Executive Director Mark Whitley.

The group is rounding out the trip by manning a West Virginia booth at the 2014 Automotive Engineering Exposition in Yokohama. It’s one of the world’s largest automotive specialty trade shows.

“It’s an important recruitment tool for us,” Burdette said. “We’ve met a lot of companies already and I’m sure that will continue in the coming days.”

Both Diamond Electric and Nippon Thermostat are using the West Virginia booth to promote their companies as well as the state.

Burdette said the trade show acts like a large “cold call” for the state to make its pitch to new businesses. But he said the face-to-face interaction with state officials helps them make that pitch in Japan.

“It’s all part of building relationships,’ he said. “That’s a bigger cultural issue in japan than the us — they very much want to know the people that they’re working with.

“One of the biggest advantages we have is that we’re a small state and they can interact with decision makers in the government — that’s very important to them. They see that as critical to being successful.”

The state’s lower industrial energy costs are also attractive to energy-intensive companies in Japan, which have been forced to reanalyze their energy consumption following the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

“That’s part of the pitch this week, and we haven’t had to pitch hard,” Burdette said. “The companies that are in West Virginia that we’re trying to talk to about growth and possible expansions, they already get it. Those that don’t and we’ve talked to have already heard about it, so it’s been productive on that front.”

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