Arkansas’ globe-trotting, job-hunting chief executive hitting the road again

by Wesley Brown ( 582 views 

Gov. Asa Hutchison (left) and Arkansas Department of Economic Development Director Mike Preston talk to the media Wednesday about their upcoming trade trip to Europe and Israel.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, with Arkansas Department of Economic Development Director Mike Preston at his side, announced Wednesday (June 14) that he will lead a trade delegation on a seven-day European trade mission that will include stops in France, Germany and Israel.

The overseas trade mission will be Hutchinson’s and Preston’s sixth international trip since the governor took office in January 2015. It will be the third trip to Europe, starting with a three-day stint in France and a stop at the popular Paris Air Show, the world’s largest trade show for the aerospace and aviation industry.

“The purpose of this (trip) is the same as previous trips, which is to bolster relationships with Arkansas companies that are owned by European parents to strengthen that relationship, encourage expansion and see where we can partner better as a state,” Hutchinson told reporters gathered at the Governor’s Conference room.

In addition, Hutchinson said he hopes to foster new relationship with business prospects in France, Germany and Israel, although he and Preston would not divulge those contacts or say if they expect to complete any deals during the European visit. Over the course of the week-long trip, Hutchinson said he intends to meet with more than 20 companies in Europe and Israel.

“One thing I’ve been made aware that has struck me that is critical is the consistency of these trips overseas — that it is not just a one-time occurrence but it reflects a continued commitment to building that relationship in international trade that is important to Arkansas, and to continue to increase the awareness of Arkansas overseas,” the governor said.

On the upcoming European trip, this will be the second time Hutchinson will lead a state trade delegation to the Paris Air Show, where Hutchinson said the AEDC team will highlight the state’s aerospace sector with prospective companies and leaders of aerospace companies that already have a presence in Arkansas. One those visits will be with officials from Paris-based Dassault Falcon Jet, which recently announced “a less than 6%” reduction in the company’s global workforce that includes the 2,000-worker completion facility at the Bill and Hillary Clinton International Airport in Little Rock.

Hutchinson said he plans to talk with Dassault Falcon officials about the recent job cuts, but said the “ebb and flow” of a major industry sometimes includes events the French company has experienced since it landed in central Arkansas more than 30 years ago.

“(That) is to be expected from a large industry, whether it is Wal-Mart or Dassault Falcon Jet, so we continue to be excited about their presence here and our meeting there will continue that relationship and look for any other ways to support that industry,” he said.

Besides Dassault, other industry giants such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, FedEx and Airbus are also expected to have a major presence at the airshow that will span 183 acres. In 2015, just days after returning from a similar trip, Hutchinson announced Aerojet Rocketdyne’s plans to expand its facility in Calhoun County, adding 85 new full-time employees and investing $18 million in the facility.

Meetings outside of the air show have also been scheduled with companies based in France. State economic development officials said there are 13 French-owned companies with 25 locations in Arkansas, employing 3,700 people.

On the second leg of the trade mission, Hutchinson, Preston and the AEDC team will travel to Germany where they will meet with companies that already have a presence in the state while also holding meetings with new prospective companies. Among foreign-based employers doing business in Arkansas, Germany ranks number one in terms of total operations in the state with 23 German-owned companies operating 34 locations, employing 1,600 people.

The last stop on the trip will be Israel, a country with growing markets in the technology and defense sectors, both of which are vital to Arkansas’ economy. This is a new market for Arkansas as no Israeli companies have operations in the state, AEDC officials said.

“Foreign direct investment jobs in Arkansas have grown by more than 41% over the last five years,” said Preston. “The number of international companies with operations in Arkansas continues to increase and the overall volume of exports from Arkansas has risen over the past five years. The significance of this activity can be seen in the 46,400 Arkansans that are employed as a result of global investment.”

Besides next week’s trip to Israel and a 2015 visit to Cuba, all of the state’s economic development travels have been focused on Europe and the Far East. In fact, Hutchinson and Preston are expected to make another visit to the China later this year, AEDC officials said last month.

AEDC spokesman Scott Hardin said the total cost of the European trade mission is $85,000. He said the majority of the expenses, or about $80,000, will come from AEDC with the remainder coming from Arkansas State Police to cover security costs.

Besides Hutchinson, First Lady Susan Hutchinson will also travel with her husband along with Alisha Curtis, the governor’s executive assistant and economic development liaison, and Bill Gossage, deputy chief of staff for external operations in the Governor’s Office. Along with Preston and Danny Games, AEDC’s executive vice president of global business, Bentley Story, director of business development, and Cornelius Schnitzler, head of Arkansas’ European economic development office, will be part of the Arkansas delegation.

Nine months ago, Hutchinson, Preston and other top AEDC staff made their second trade visit to China where Arkansas economic development officials met with executives from Chinese timber and paper products giant Sun Paper and cultivated other Far East prospects considering locating to Arkansas.

And following the 2016 fiscal session, Gov. Hutchinson took his first trade trip of 2016 when he led a state delegation to Farnborough International Airshow in England. That weeklong international trade show from July 11-17 in Hampshire, England, combined a major trade exhibition for the aerospace and defense industries with a public airshow.

In 2015, Hutchinson made trade visits to Cuba, Europe, and the Far East, where he was able to lay the ground for the Sun Paper and other smaller deals. A month ago, Hutchinson announced that Chinese textile giant Shandong Ruyi Technology Group will locate its first manufacturing operation in North America in Forrest City, creating up to 800 jobs that will pay more than $15 an hour when operational. Ruyi plans to begin renovating the vacant and aging Sanyo building in late 2017.

In October, Hutchinson penned the deal with Suzhou Tianyuan, a Chinese sports apparel manufacturer that will invest more than $20 million and bring 400 jobs paying $14 an hour and benefits to the Little Rock area. The Chinese garment maker signed a lease agreement with the Little Rock Port Authority earlier this year to locate their operations in the authority’s industrial park on the Arkansas River.