Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Trade mission aims to entice development

Representatives of four northwest Ohio companies on a trade mission to China with Toledo Mayor Mike Bell hope to snare investments and business opportunities.

"There's just a lot of positive reasons for these companies in China to build in this area," said Rich Bertz, senior vice president at Mannik & Smith Group, an engineering firm based in Maumee.

Mannik & Smith is one of the area companies on a trade trip led by Mr. Bell. The trip began Friday and is to end Monday. They are visiting Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Ordos, Yulin, and Beijing.

The participants and companies involved are Scott Prephan of Prephan Enterprises, Perrysburg; Michael Farrar of ACT Ltd. of Perrysburg and ACT Asian Operations; Sheri Bokros, business development marketing manager for Mannik & Smith; and Alex Johnson, chief executive officer of Ohio Holdings subsidiary Midwest Terminals, Toledo.

The group was meeting in China with Simon Guo, president of Simon Business Connection, China, who is a colleague of Mr. Prephan.

"There's a lot of money in the companies in China," Mr. Bertz said. "The CEOs in these companies are looking to for places to put money. They're not familiar with the Toledo area."

A goal of the mission, he explained, is to persuade executives in China to visit northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan to see the investment opportunities firsthand.

An investment, he said, could take five years or more, but he foresees Chinese firms building manufacturing facilities and other commercial sites in the region.

Mr. Bertz of Mannik & Smith said the key to the trip is Mr. Prephan, who with Mr. Farrar operates Automation & Control Technologies (ACT) Ltd.'s Asian Operations in Shanghai. ACT repairs electronic components.

Jen Sorgenfrei, a spokesman for the mayor, said Mr. Prephan and Dean Monske, deputy mayor for external affairs, are acquainted through Toledo's business community and various economic development efforts. Mr. Monske, who also is on the trade trip, introduced Mr. Prephan to Mayor Bell. Ms. Sorgenfrei was not sure who initiated the China trip.

"There are other folks from the business and economic community that suggested there may be viable opportunities with business in China," she said. "It was not just [Mr. Prephan] who was suggesting it."

Mr. Prephan coordinated the trip and invited both the mayor and Mr. Monske to come along, Ms. Sorgenfrei said. Ms. Bokros of Mannik & Smith also has worked with Mr. Prephan and used that connection to join the trade mission, Mr. Bertz said.

The Shanghai-based ACT was founded in early 2009 to repair electronic components for Western manufacturers that have Chinese facilities, such as Cooper Tire & Rubber Co., a replacement-tire manufacturer based in Findlay.

ACT Ltd., which also repairs components, and Prephan Enterprises, which is an umbrella name for Mr. Prephan's real-estate investments, share offices in Perrysburg. ACT also has a facility in Northwood.

Both companies have fewer than 10 employees in suburban Toledo, said Kathi Prephan, controller of Prephan Enterprises and Mr. Prephan's wife.

She said her husband and Mr. Farrar have introduced Mayor Bell to their business contacts in China "in hopes of spurring some economic development over here from Chinese investors."

Her husband told her the mayor has been received positively in China. "The mayor's really hitting it off with these business people," she said.

Mr. Farrar is expected to return to Toledo on Friday. Mr. Prephan and Mr. Bell are to return Monday.

Mannik & Smith, which has more than 200 employees and does substantial engineering consulting work, including highway and transportation design, would hope to get some of that work, Mr. Bertz said.

"There's the potential for thousands of jobs in the region," he said.

The first signs of potential investment began in 2008, when a delegation of executives from Chinese automaker BYD Auto Co. visited Toledo to meet with local economic development officials. The city was trying to encourage the Chinese company to build an automotive plant in Toledo, possibly to make electric-car batteries.

Officials of Midwest Terminals, which has a full-service U.S. port, foreign trade zone, and commodity warehouse facility on the Maumee River, could not be reached for comment.

But Carla Firestone, a spokesman for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, said Mr. Johnson, the CEO of Midwest Terminals, is in China to pitch potential development sites at the Port of Toledo to Chinese firms looking to gain a foothold in the United States.

"This is a business development trip for them," Ms. Firestone said. "They have a couple hundred acres of developable properties and they're trying to promote their sites as a place to be."

The port has leased 182 acres to Midwest Terminals to develop the so-called Ironville Dock, which is the site of the former Gulf Oil refinery.

For the last nine years, Midwest Terminals also has operated the port authority's International Cargo Dock.

Ms. Firestone said Midwest Terminals is hoping to find some water-dependent businesses in China that might want to put an operation in Toledo at the Ironville Dock site.

"They are hoping these companies may want to divert some shipping business from the [East] Coast to the Great Lakes," she said.

Contact Jon Chavez at:

or 419-724-6128.

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