Toledo, known for auto manufacturing and glass production, may be on its way to earning a reputation as an international city.
Next month the city will play host to a two-day gathering of 20 businesses and officials from Italy seeking business and investment opportunities in northwest Ohio.
The 2014 Italian Business Forum will be held May 12-14 at the Park Inn by Radisson Hotel & Conference Center. If it reminds people of the September, 2012, economic forum when officials from China came to the area seeking business and investment opportunities, that’s not a coincidence.
Many of those involved in the earlier event are involved in the Italian forum. A key organizer of both events is 5 Lakes Global Group Ltd., the consulting group owned by Simon Guo, a deal broker and Toledo resident.
Mr. Guo took the lead on the earlier forum, but Toledoan Scott Prephan, president of 5 Lakes Global, is a central figure in next month’s event.
However, Mr. Prephan is only half of the team organizing the event. The other half is Italian business consultant Gionata Lazzaretti, and his wife, attorney Linda Pignatti. They are spearheading the effort in Italy to bring businesses to Toledo to explore opportunities.
Mr. Lazzaretti owns a building consulting firm, Still Italy, in Correggio, Italy, and is a co-sponsor of the event.
“It was all about the relationship,” Mr. Prephan said. “[Mr. Lazzaretti] reacted well to the message put forth by Toledo, and I got introduced to Gionata when he came here to visit a little over a year ago.”
Still Italy lined up the 20 firms — a collection of manufacturers, biomedical technology companies, and food and wine producers — who were looking to either set up operations in the United States or add to their U.S. operations.
“The business climate in Italy is very challenging. ... These companies think they can do better over here,” Mr. Prephan said.
“With the Chinese who came here, the motivation was very different. They were looking to invest,” Mr. Prephan said. “The Italians, their reasons for coming are very different. They like the business environment in the U.S. There’s less of a tax burden, and they’re looking for new market.”
Mr. Prephan said he has been told the Italian companies are impressed by the Toledo area’s location, which puts it within a 10-hour drive of 60 percent of the U.S. population, and its access to distribution facilities via rail, water, air, and highways. He also mentioned the area’s lower cost of doing business.
“We have a tremendous advantage in logistics and the speed of getting their products to market,” Mr. Prephan said.
Mr. Lazzaretti, in an interview with the Italian newspaper il Resto del Carlino, said Toledo impressed him.
“Why Toledo? Because it’s considered the city of the future, is one of the major production centers of the U.S.A., and there’s some of the biggest companies [present in the Fortune 500 list] located there, for example, Jeep. It’s a very important city for biomedical, renewable energy, automotive, food and beverage sectors, and many others too,” Mr. Lazzaretti was quoted as saying.
Oddly, Mr. Lazzaretti first came to know about Toledo through football, Mr. Prephan said.
Mr. Lazzaretti was a running back on an American-style football team in the Italian Football League. One of his teammates was Nick Eyde, whose family owns the East Lansing, Mich.-based Eyde Co.
The Eyde Co. has owned Toledo’s Fiberglas Tower building downtown since 1998, and Mr. Eyde told his teammate many stories about Toledo.
“When Gionata told me he had played football, I said, ‘You mean soccer.’ He said, ‘No, I mean football, American football.’ I had no idea they played it over there,” Mr. Prephan said.
Having heard about Toledo, Mr. Lazzaretti decided to come see it for himself nearly a year and a half ago. He was introduced to Mr. Prephan.
The two have been working on organizing the business forum for about a year.
Activities for the two-day event will include a general greeting session on May 12, a series of speeches and presentations the following day, and on the final day discussions on business issues followed by tours of The Andersons Inc.’s operations in Maumee and Chrysler Group LLC’s Toledo Assembly complex.
Making new friends
The event has rallied many in the Italian-American community in Toledo to either volunteer or contribute in various ways.
Tax specialist Chuck Mira, whose grandparents came to the United States from Italy, plans to lead a discussion on May 14 centered on tax issues for foreign companies doing business in America.
“I guess the economy over there is pretty slow and sluggish and these companies are looking for new opportunities,” said Mr. Mira, a partner at the accounting firm of Mira + Kolena.
“This is a chance to maybe make some new friends and an opportunity to provide tax services,” Mr. Mira said. “As you know, the [U.S. tax] system is vast and complicated.”
The Chinese forum had representatives from about 160 Chinese companies. Mr. Prephan said this event will be “more manageable.” It also will differ in several other respects.
“Right off, there is the language difference and the cultural difference,” Mr. Prephan said. “We won’t have to spend time learning the culture, and as for the language, more than half of the people coming already speak English.”
Also, whereas the Chinese visitors are looking at doing business in Toledo or northwest Ohio years from now, the Italians are ready to do business now, Mr. Prephan said. One Italian firm is actively scouting sites to move a plant from another Midwest state to northwest Ohio, which better fits its plans.
The Italian business forum is drawing some heavyweight attention.
Local development groups and entities, such as the Regional Growth Partnership, the Lucas County Improvement Corp., the city of Toledo, the Lucas County Port Authority, and the University of Toledo all have offered resources and are helping with the event. The state of Ohio is also lending support.
But Mr. Prephan said outside bodies heard about the event and wanted to become involved.
The Italian Business Alliance in Detroit has asked to participate as has the Italian Trade Commission based in Chicago. The Italian Consulate office in Cleveland also will send a representative.
“Frankly, we didn’t anticipate this type of response. We thought a few businesses would be interested, but from there it just kind of grew,” Mr. Prephan said.
Perhaps most surprising is involvement from Chrysler Group LLC, although because it is owned by Fiat SpA, the largest auto manufacturer in Italy, perhaps the involvement should not be all that surprising.
When the Chinese forum was held, Chrysler did not make its Toledo Jeep plant available for tours.
But when the Italian companies arrive, they will get a tour of the Jeep plant. Also, six Chrysler executives will attend parts of the forum, and Mauro Pino, the former Toledo plant manager and now head of NAFTA Manufacturing/World Class Manufacturing at Chrysler Group, will come to Toledo on May 13 to be the guest speaker at a special private Italian cuisine dinner to be held at the Toledo Club downtown.
“They’re all over the Italians coming here. We’re more than pleased at their participation,” Mr. Prephan said.
Chrysler Group’s participation and the Jeep plant tour will help showcase Toledo, Mr. Prephan said. But Chrysler's involvement is giving the Toledo area some high credibility with Italian companies who are unfamiliar with northwest Ohio.
“It gives us a lot of clout and station on this because of who’s going to be here. Everybody in Italy knows Fiat, and Fiat owns Chrysler,” Mr. Prephan said.
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