What many believe was Toledo’s first large-scale international economic development conference, the 5 Lakes Global Economic Forum, is now history but its potential ramifications and direct impacts won’t be known for some time.
Dean Monske, president of the Regional Growth Partnership, which co-organized the forum with Toledo consulting firm 5 Lakes Global Ltd., was specific in his personal goals of what the Toledo area business community should get out of the three-day event, which brought 160 businessmen, educators, government officials, and educators from China to commingle with an equal number of businessmen and leaders from northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.
On Tuesday after the first lengthy information session Mr. Monske said he expected to get 10 solid business leads, three of which would later develop into viable, tangible projects for the region.
On Friday, Paul Zito, vice president of international development for the growth partnership, said he felt that expectation was met and surpassed.
“I’ve done events like this in many countries and I’m really critical of them. But just based on initial analysis, I think we have at least 20 good leads on manufacturing and technology companies that have been qualified by both the RGP and 5 Lakes Global. …Companies that I qualify by a pretty rigid set of criteria,” he said.
These Chinese companies, Mr. Zito said, had studied northwest Ohio before sending representatives here for further due diligence. “They had specific issues they wanted to discuss about the U.S. market and Ohio and northwest Ohio,” he said.
The Chinese companies attending the forum apparently left with answers to their questions about northwest Ohio. “We have advanced to that next level very well, and I have no idea how many synergies might have been generated by bringing all these people together,” he said.
The growth partnership plans to follow up this week with participating local companies to see what their experiences were.
Mr. Zito said the media exposure that the forum achieved led to an unexpected development that he called “the icing on the cake.”
On Wednesday, officials of the growth partnership were contacted by the director of external relations for a large overseas company that has significant operations in the United States.
“They said they read about the event and would very much like to meet with us about the future of their operations in the U.S.,” Mr. Zito said. He refused to name the company, but said its revenues significantly exceed seven digits and that the RGP has been pursuing a possible relationship with the company for some time.
“This company has been on what I call our ‘hit list.’ I’ve always wondered, ‘How can I get in the door there and I’ll probably have to go through seven levels of operation to do that,’ ” Mr. Zito said.
“They are a huge player,” Mr. Monske agreed. “It was just nice to get a call from D.C. from the level of the company that this person represented. He said, ‘We heard about this. We want to meet with you about future operations in the U.S.’ ”
While the economic forum apparently wowed its foreign visitors, and the Toledo area could see tangible benefits from the event, the bill for the festivities isn’t likely to alarm the average local citizens.
The event “was completely private. We had no dollars that we put into it,” Mr. Zito said.
5 Lakes Global picked up much of the financial tab, but they were helped out significantly by 29 area sponsors that provided funds, resources, time, or the uses of their facilities to make the event a success.
“It was truly was a community-wide effort. Most of the people were volunteers,” Mr. Zito said. “There was a lot of community support, a lot of in-kind support, and people sponsoring real events or donating cash. But I didn’t hear any complaints. All the sponsors thought it was great value for money.”
An event from Toledo’s past generated great excitement Wednesday among the Chinese visitors on a tour bus headed to Dana Corp. in Maumee as part of a trip to see some of the area’s largest manufacturing and technology companies.
Told that in 1988 the Toledo Zoo was host to a pair of pandas, Nan Nan and Le Le, courtesy of the Chinese government, the back of the bus was suddenly alive with questions about the panda visit, intense curiosity about the Toledo Zoo, and comments suggesting a new admiration for the zoo and the Toledo area. The Chinese government, the Chinese commenters said, does not lend pandas to just anybody. Pandas are reserved for special places.
Mr. Monske said Toledo officials have encountered similar reactions twice on trade trips to China, and once at a function in New York involving Chinese officials.
That the Toledo Zoo played host to pandas is considered a great honor for the city by the Chinese, he said.
“When it was brought up in New York, that probably elicited as much comment and excitement and reaction as anything else we said. It does just give you instant credibility with [the Chinese],” Mr. Monske said. “It just builds your stature in their eyes.”
Officials repeatedly stated throughout the three days of the forum that business discussions were taking place behind the scenes that could possibly lead to potential business investment. It was not a falsehood.
On the bus to Dana Corp., Michael Mao, vice president of Henry Global Consulting Group, approached growth partnership officials and others seeking information about northwest Ohio’s auto industry. Mr. Mao was representing an Chinese tire manufacturer, whose identity was not disclosed, that was interested in making contact with -- and possibly doing business with -- the Big Three automakers. For now the manufacturer was just interested in making contact, but Mr. Mao was also concerned about how Chinese business owners might be treated and perceived should they open operations in northwest Ohio.
He was surprised to learn that the region is home to nearly 70 Japanese-owed businesses that employ more than 17,000 workers, including a dozen auto industry-related companies like tire manufacturer Bridgestone Corp. in Findlay.
The 5 Lakes Global Economic Forum attracted members of the international press, who, given the Wednesday visits of President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney, wanted to know which way Ohio leans politically. One item that seem to puzzle foreign reporters Larisa Sayenko of RIA Novosti (Russia), Chidanand Rajghatta of the Times of India, and Yun Wu of the People’s Daily of Beijing, was how Ohio could support President Obama in 2008 and again in 2012 (recent polls show Mr. Obama leading Mr. Romney in Ohio), yet elect Republican John Kasich as governor in 2010.
Told that Ohio is one of the few states with both large urban areas that tend to lean Democratic and a sizeable rural population that tends to lean Republican, the reporters seemed to grasp why Ohio had become so important that both presidential candidates would be in the Buckeye state on the same day and only 25 miles apart.
Youbo Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., which is China’s top pharmaceutical company, announced on Tuesday that it would create a training platform for Chinese doctors at the University of Toledo Medical Center, the former Medical College of Ohio, and bring a few dozen doctors to Toledo annually to study here.
While that was the most concrete development to come out of the forum, Chen Xiaodong, section chief of the Science & Technology department at the Shanghai Advanced Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, had several interesting thoughts about potential joint business ventures between medical firms in China and companies in northwest Ohio.
China is trying to upgrade its health care system as its population ages, and is particularly focused on treating chronic diseases of the elderly because it is on the verge of becoming a “senior society” with nearly 14 percent of its population exceeding the age of 60.
Mr. Chen said it might be possible to set up specialty treatment centers in northwest Ohio, which Chinese could visit to take advantage of Western medicine, and vice versa.
Northwest Ohio with its ability to export products, he added, could be a good location to export badly needed basic U.S.-made medical products or food to China. “Because of a lack of a platform for food and other products in China, powdered milk is four times as expensive in China than it is in the U.S.,” Mr. Chen said through an interpreter. “There could be a good place for exports like that in Toledo.”
Mr. Chen said that with Toledo’s advanced medical college and hospital system, Toledo might also be the perfect place for a joint elder-care research center that could do research and study of geriatric diseases.
Contact Jon Chavez at email@example.com or 419-724-6128.