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Swedish-American Chamber approves regional office in state

Madison — Last May, the Swedish-American Chamber of Commerce (SACC) approved Madison as the home of the 19th regional chamber of commerce in the U.S. to serve the Deep South.
SACC Mississippi opened an office earlier this month next door to the Mississippi Scandinavian Enterprise (MSE) complex in Madison.

“This marks the first time in the history of Mississippi that a foreign government has put in a chamber of commerce,” said Steve Vassallo, executive director of SACC Mississippi. “Geographically, it worked out great because Madison is about as centrally located as you can possibly get in this five-state region of Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.”

SACC, founded in 1906 in New York, is the oldest organization abroad of its kind. Approximately 500 Swedish companies in the U.S. employ 230,000.

“Most of the jobs they create here are very high-tech and typically pay more than the industry average,” said Vassallo.

None of the 18 chambers covered this region of the southeastern U.S. The last chamber approved by SACC was in 1999 in Philadelphia, Pa.

“At least 50 companies from Scandinavia will be coming into the U.S. this year for various needs — to expand, to develop trade relations, to test the market, and/or introduce new products — and serving them is our primary focus,” said Vassallo.

For example, a Swedish company, in partnership with an established firm, makes a unique form of cranberry juice and wants to joint venture their products with an established company in the U.S., said Vassallo.

“We gave them contact information for four companies with which there should be a good synergy,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised at how receptive the U.S. companies were. They knew about this company and were very interested in communicating with them. Hopefully, we can be a catalyst for joint ventures like these.”

Ingvar Haglof, CEO of Haglof Sweden, the world’s leading timber instrument company, was the first Swedish company to establish an office in Madison in 1983. The Swedish business connection in Mississippi moved into high gear in 1998 with the creation of Madison’s sister city relationship with Solleftea, Haglof’s hometown.

In 2001, Swedish businesses opened the MSE-operated 9,000-square-foot incubator building in the Madison Business Park. The incubator houses up to 12 companies at once — 10 are located there now — and serves as a transitional station for established Swedish companies to test market products in the U.S. before making larger financial commitments.

“To our knowledge, it’s the first time in the history of the U.S. where foreign investors actually built a business incubator for companies from their region of the world,” said Vassallo. “We’ll be working hand-in-hand with all Swedish contacts, but most importantly with those affiliated with the MSE organization.”

Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins-Butler, former Mississippi Development Authority employee Van Evans and Vassallo were the three principals behind establishing SACC Mississippi.

“What’s happening with the Swedish endeavor is bigger than Madison, the city or the county,” said Hawkins-Butler. “I view this as a wonderful opportunity for the State of Mississippi. With the growth of the relationship, the different businesses visiting our community give Mississippi the opportunity to be the gateway for Swedish companies.”

The national office asked Vassallo to recruit 20 members by the chamber’s official grand opening on April 19. That goal had been reached by January 19.

“We’re off to a really fast start, and hopefully we’ll be well over 50 by the time Gunilla Girardo, president of SACC-USA, presides over our first board meeting on April 18 in Madison,” said Vassallo.

Vassallo said the chamber would not actively recruit retail businesses, but instead vendors and suppliers — accountants, architects, construction companies, engineers, office equipment and supply companies, to name a few — that would benefit from Scandinavian companies locating in the area.

“By belonging to the SACC network, with its regional chamber network, our companies have a great potential to succeed and expand,” said Sture Larsson, executive director of the Mid-Sweden Chamber of Commerce. “They will also gain access to the regional chambers’ expertise and experience of their respective markets.”

State economist Phil Pepper called the new deal “a true win-win for Swedish and American companies.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.


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