Times have changed and Mississippi has entered the global economic development market. International companies are locating in the state and trade missions take government and business leaders all over the world in pursuit of more jobs and industries.
The recent trip to Japan led by Gov. Haley Barbour is part of the bigger picture of positioning the state for a larger role on the world stage through relationship building and image enhancement.
Carolyn Shanks, CEO of Entergy, was one of several business leaders who felt the trip was worth time away from daily business duties.
“I went because at Entergy, we are actively supporting Mississippi as a key player in economic development,” she said. “Our state has a lot of momentum right now that’s being spurred by new industry, a renewed focus on education and workforce training initiatives. To continue that success, we must go where the prospects are — to build relationships and market this great product we call home.”
She believes trade missions enhance the state’s image by demonstrating a unified front comprised of state officials, business leaders and others.
“That’s important to any industry that is considering a move to Mississippi,” she said. “Too, it lets the big players know we are very serious about attracting new jobs to our state and working to ensure their success once they are here. Like any other business endeavor, you must make people aware of what you have to offer and aggressively market your product to them.”
As a professional economic developer, Gray Swoope has made several trips to Japan, some while he worked in Arkansas. Now as executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority, he firmly believes in the value of trade missions.
“They’re the most productive trips we’ve ever had, and this trip to Japan with the governor leading made a difference,” he said. “We will be seeing the fruit of that mission quickly.”
He points to the string of new industry announcements the state has enjoyed in recent months as a result of Mississippi’s changing image. “We’ve seen that in a short time frame with companies such as PACCAR making their single largest investment in our state to supply engines worldwide,” he said. “And we had a special section in Fortune magazine. A lot of it is perception and how companies look at us.”
‘Essential,’ Thornell asserts
Although he did not go on the most recent trade mission to Japan, David Thornell of Starkville has been on others.
“It is absolutely essential that economic development’s top recruiters go and meet with our key prospects at their home offices,” he said. “It shows our high level of interest. Asian companies place a great importance that someone as high ranking as the governor comes to meet with them.”
Thornell, executive director of the Greater Starkville Development Partnership, has made two trips to Japan and one to Korea.
“You always know there will be benefits down the road. It’s forever etched in their minds that you thought enough to visit their country,” he said. “It’s especially good with Asian companies. They feel it’s important that we show respect and mutual regard for them.”
‘No down time,’ Swoope says
Swoope said MDA is responsible for trade missions and each one focuses on different objectives. The recent Japan trip focused on automobile makers and automotive suppliers. He and the governor made numerous calls on companies.
“This trip was strictly automotive, riding on the Toyota facility announcement. The governor thanked them for locating in Mississippi,” he said. “They need to feel that their investment 7,000 miles away is in good faith. It’s our job as a state to go after as many suppliers as possible, and then zero in on the ones with potential.”
The state delegation also conducted an Invest in Mississippi Seminar that was attended by 70 people representing 50 companies. A simulcast of the proceedings were translated into Japanese. Individual visits were made to other companies as well, including Nissan, another significant Japanese employer in the state.
Swoope stresses that trade missions are anything but foreign vacations. “There is no down time. We’re out the door early every morning and all our time is productive,” he said. “We can’t justify going and not using every minute.”
He said the decision as to who goes on these trips depends on the nature of the trip and the goals to be accomplished. Another trip to Japan will be made in the fall with a different group of delegates.
“First and foremost, it’s important to have relationships in the site selection process and more important on an international basis,” he said. “These companies can locate anywhere in the world.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.