Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Toledo Mayor Bell connects with 'family' in China

BEIJING - Sunday started with "family" - a metaphorical sister, actually. Representatives of Toledo's Chinese sister city, Qinhuangdao, arrived at

7:30 a.m. for breakfast with the delegation led by Mayor Mike Bell on the second-to-last day of his 11-day trip to China.

For an hour and a half, Liu Caijia, vice director of Qinhuangdao's foreign-affairs office, and Mayor Bell sought to re-establish a relationship both said had been damaged by Toledo city budget cuts to the Sister Cities program.

"You haven't had one mayor who's even come over here. I'm the first may-or to come over here. And I will be back," promised Mr. Bell.

Like Toledo, Qinhuangdao is a major port city. It is 180 miles east of Beijing, on the Bohai Sea, the innermost gulf of the Yellow Sea.

It is a popular tourist destination, especially for government officials, and as a result it is often compared to Camp David in Maryland. Qinhuangdao also is where China's Great Wall, built to keep out invaders from the North, meets the Yellow Sea.

"There's good understanding between the two cities in terms of cultural exchange and economic cooperation," said Toledo psychologist Yueh-Ting Lee, one of 15 members of the board of directors of Toledo Sister Cities International.

Toledo Sister Cities International, among other tasks, arranges cross-cultural, educational, medical, and economic exchanges with eight cities that have partnered with Toledo: Delmenhorst, Germany; Londrina, Brazil; Poznan, Poland; Qinhuangdao; Szeged, Hungary; Tanga, Tanzania; Toyohashi, Japan, and Toledo, Spain.

Mr. Lee said one of their most successful programs is an annual youth camp through which local families host 10 teens from Qinhuangdao and all the other sister cities. The Chinese want to send 15 students, but Mr. Lee said expediting the issuance of visas remained an obstacle.

"Many, many people in Toledo, northwest Ohio, are kind of conservative. They still have an inaccurate perception of China and Chinese people," said Mr. Lee, a native of mainland China's Hunan Province.

"When we have face-to-face talks, we have nonverbal communication, and that's why physical visits for communication is better than e-mail, phone call, or Facebook," he added, echoing Mayor Bell's argument for his in-person visit to China.

"You cannot be competitive unless you learn and understand other people," said Mr. Lee, who also holds a leadership position in the 80-20 Club of Northwest Ohio, an Asian-American civil and political interest group instrumental in lobbying the Bell administration to engage China.

Mr. Lee said the previous city administration, under three-term mayor Carty Finkbeiner, had zeroed out an operating budget line of between $150,000 and $200,000 for the sister-city program, which had funded an administrator and a secretary.

Scott Prephan, a real estate developer and co-owner of a China-based firm that services industrial machinery, also recalled frustration trying to redirect the economic development under Mr. Finkbeiner's attention away from the northwest Ohio region and toward China with his stories and photos and news of the "multitude of opportunities in China - economic development opportunities that they weren't paying attention to."

"I basically got nowhere with the previous administration," recalled the man to whom Deputy Mayor Dean Monske, a friend of Mr. Prepham for 15 years, turned in the spring when the administration began to seriously consider a China mission.

As he reflected on the past week, Mr. Prephan Sunday checked out of his hotel in Beijing. His next stop with the delegation was to be Shenzhen Sunday night, then, this morning, Hong Kong, from which the group would leave to return to the United States.

"The mayor is the connection. I could connect with Chinese businesses, [but] I think more can be accomplished, on a higher level, with the region as a whole, working with the mayor, because he represents Toledo," said Mr. Prephan.

"And the Chinese have a top-down mayor system. They understand how important the position of the mayor is, that they connect, person-to-person. So I think when you start at that level versus the level beneath, you've got more opportunities and more doors that will open up.

"I couldn't have come over here and accomplished the things he's done in the last 10 days. Wouldn't happen. We could be productive. [But] it's more than about me. It's more about bringing opportunities to the region as a whole. I saw it and I experienced it firsthand and I'm just happy to be a part of it."

Mr. Prephan said he thought the mayor hit his stride in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, when he spoke from his heart in the midst of a starkly structured conference organized around opening and closing remarks timed to last exactly 15 and 10 minutes, respectively. Going off script, Mayor Bell's Chinese counterpart in Ordos, Cao Zhichen, praised him as having a "tremendous amount of integrity."

By the following day, in Yulin, Shaanxi Province, Mayor Bell was similarly interacting with Zhao Jian Hong, director of the Yulin Bureau of Commerce, Mr. Prephan observed.

One reason could have been because of a commonality of experiences, Mr. Prephan said: The smaller-town officials of China and the U.S. share a similar municipal outlook.

"I knew the mayor would connect well with people. I didn't know he would connect that well," said Mr. Prephan. "That was amazing."

The Finkbeiner administration's economic-development history was also on Mayor Bell's mind Sunday morning as he wrapped up his official duties and planned to take the last few hours in Beijing to sightsee.

Following his breakfast meeting with the Qinhuangdao official, Mr. Bell recalled a story he was told during his trip's first day, when he met with representatives of the Shenzhen-based BYD Co.

BYD is a Hong Kong listed, high-tech enterprise in China specializing in information technology, automobile, and new energy, with integrated research, development, manufacturing, and sales and with assets of $4.9 billion in 2008, according to the company Web site.

Eleven years ago, when the company was considering where to site its North American sales branch, BYD officials scheduled meetings in Detroit and Toledo. Mayor Bell said BYD executives in Shenzhen told him that when they called the former Toledo mayor to say they were delayed for a half-hour in traffic, "he just left."

BYD's North American sales office, with its 30 employees who sell rechargeable batteries, Monday is in the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Village, Ill.

Mr. Finkbeiner said Sunday night that his administration "would not let a stone go unturned" in pursuing jobs and economic development, and claimed $4 billion worth of investment during his 12 years in office.

That money led to 12,250 new jobs and the retention of 27,000 additional jobs in that time frame, he said. The investment included the new Jeep plant in North Toledo, the General Motors Co. investment in its Powertrain factory on Alexis Road, and construction of Owens Corning's headquarters downtown.

"My economic development team was probably the most aggressive economic development team this city has ever had," Mr. Finkbeiner said.

He could not recall having contact with BYD 11 years ago but said "if they were genuine and sincere, I would have thought they would have made a follow-up contact with us."

The former mayor said his pursuit of jobs took him to Stuttgart, Germany, in 1999, where he visited Daimler-Benz AG, which had purchased Chrysler and its Jeep line. Daimler subsequently invested $1.4 billion in a new Toledo factory.

Mr. Finkbeiner said he never slowed in his waning days in office to seek out economic development opportunities.

In November, 2009, less than two months before he turned the mayor's office over to Mr. Bell, Mr. Finkbeiner met with Sergio Marchionne, chairman of Fiat. The Italian automaker had recently taken over management of Chrysler and pledged to inject new management, new technology, and new life.

Mr. Finkbeiner said he was invited to Chrysler's Auburn Hills, Mich., headquarters to hear of new plans and used the opportunity "to introduce myself to him … even though I had less than 45 days in office."

Following Sunday's breakfast meeting with the Qinhuangdao officials, which included the presentation to Mr. Bell of a print and an invitation from the mayor for the official to visit Toledo, the frenetic pace of the Toledo delegation slowed considerably - for the first time.

A private meeting with an associate of Alex Johnson, chief executive and president of Midwest Terminals of Toledo, followed. Then a break. Then a two-and-a half-hour lunch, also private, with an associate of Simon Guo.

Mr. Guo, 46, the Toledo delegation's tireless liaison to Chinese contacts who, in turn, placed the delegation in touch with local Chinese government and business leaders, had been pressed into service not only as a go-between but also as a tour guide, chauffeur, press secretary, and simultaneous interpreter.

Mr. Guo revealed that last skill Saturday night with a dead-on impression of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as the group prepared to board their plane to Beijing. He had been Mr. Kissinger's interpreter during a 1987 trip to China.

Mr. Guo also was an interpreter for former British Prime Minister Edward Heath and David Rockefeller of Chase Manhattan Bank during their many visits to China, according to his biography posted on a Web site for the Sewickley, Pa.-based Business Growth Alliance, which describes itself as "a national affiliate network of seasoned, professional services firms, which are dedicated to providing Private Business Wealth Management services to private middle market and family-owned companies and their principals."

His experience was on full display Friday in Ordos when a young woman in her 20s, tapped to act as interpreter for the Chinese municipal officials, could not keep up the pace, nor suitably amplify her voice.

Before the meeting she had privately expressed anxiety about her first time ever working as a Chinese-to-English translator, a challenge in pressure situations.

With the flare and projection of an American television emcee, Mr. Guo picked up in nearly accent-free English where the young woman left off.

For the next two hours, he provided ongoing interpretation of all speakers, from both the Toledo and Chinese officials, along with improvising the narration of the Toledo video when its sound system developed problems, a problem that recurred the following day in Yulin.

Mr. Monske said Friday night that Mr. Guo was not on Toledo's travel payroll.

Mr. Prephan and Sheri L. Bokros, business developer and marketing manager for Mannik & Smith, a civil engineering, surveying, and environmental consulting firm in Maumee, and Mr. Guo himself, on Saturday night, all said his objective in acting as a liaison, tour guide, and interpreter was to network and make contacts for his own prospective business opportunities.

Ms. Bokros suggested one might come from her firm were it to return to China.

Mr. Monske said Mr. Prephan had introduced him to Mr. Guo, who had in turn introduced Mayor Bell and Mr. Monske to Qu Guangsheng, who runs a business education program for Chinese chief executives.

In addition to everything else that he did, Mr. Guo also served as the contact point person for the entire trip, even advising one guest of the delegation how to dress when first meeting the mayor.

Zhixin "Simon" Guo was born and raised in Beijing, where he now lives with his wife and 12-year-old son when he is not working out of an office in Shenzhen. His posted biography states he is a managing director and is on the management team of U.S. China Business Solutions (USCBS).

He also serves as president of USCBS China Operations. Prior to assuming his duties at USCBS, Mr. Guo's career focused on developing new business opportunities, including consulting, training, and customer fulfillment.

He concurrently serves as key facilitator for Wilson Learning in Beijing. Mr. Guo was the vice president of global markets and business development for Vianet/Mintel, one of the major IDC-based telecom operators in China. He created the entire organization from scratch, recruiting talent from global multinational companies.

He previously served as general manager of international markets for Qwest Communications and successfully launched international direct sales distribution to the Pacific Rim in 1996, accounting for more than $100 million in new revenue. Prior to Qwest, Mr. Guo served as General Manager for Asian Markets for MCI.

Mr. Guo received a bachelor of arts degree in English with a concentration in international business management from the Beijing Second Institute of Foreign Languages and a master's in communications with a concentration on marketing and public relations from Northeast Louisiana University.

But for all his business connections and success, Sunday Mr. Guo was back to being an expert tour guide for Mayor Bell and the delegation from Toledo. Driving past the Olympic park's Bird's Nest stadium and Water Cube on the way to lunch, he lectured to a rapt audience as Toledo's journey throughout China was coming to an end.

Bill Marcus is a freelance reporter based in Shanghai.

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