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Burdette bolstering international relations

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Photo courtesy of Keith Burdette: West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette and the WV Trade Delegation met with Diamond Electric during their trip to Japan May 9-22. Photo courtesy of Keith Burdette: West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette and the WV Trade Delegation met with Diamond Electric during their trip to Japan May 9-22.
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When it comes to investing, West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette said the strength of ongoing relations between the Mountain State and Japan is what was highlighted during the West Virginia Trade Delegation’s May 9-22 visit to Japan.

Burdette recently spoke with The State Journal about the trip, which touched on the automotive industry, energy, how popular West Virginia politicians are in Japan, ways to get women involved in manufacturing and the importance of the business card.

State Journal: What was the overall mission of the trade delegation visit?

Keith Burdette: My visit was really based on trying to tie up some things and show how important (the state) views that relationship. It was part of a much broader routine outreach that we do.

TSJ: How does the Mountain State maintain the investment relationship with Japan?

Burdette: Our outreach is ongoing. Periodically, we kind of ramp up the effort. I don’t usually go but once a year, at best, and it becomes an opportunity to do a little broader outreach. When I go, usually it is a mix between retention and recruitment. We usually go visit companies that are already here, that we have investments with. We try to focus on those companies that are considered growth opportunities. And then we spend half the time on new prospects, new outreach.

TSJ: How big an impact does Japanese investment have on the Mountain State?

Burdette: Japan is one of our biggest partners. They either have more or are tied for the most number of companies that are here in West Virginia. I think they employ about 2,500 people and their investment in West Virginia’s economy is over $2.1 billion so they’re a very important trading partner with West Virginia.

TSJ: Where is the trade base located?

Burdette: We use Nagoya as our base. We’ve had one there for 24 years. Nagoya is the big industrial base of Japan. That’s where Toyota is located. So much of the industrial operations that are here in West Virginia are based in and around Nagoya. We were years and years before anyone else, and it’s paid dividends. Of the 20 companies, 19 are from the Nagoya area. Even though we have outreach everywhere else, because of the types of companies we’ve been recruiting, most of them are from that area.

TSJ: What investment advantages does West Virginia have that other states don’t?

Burdette: There are many disadvantages to being a small state, but there are many advantages if you apply them right. One of them is you can get the attention of West Virginia leaders so much easier than you can in other states and the Japanese know that. They’re the first to attest to that and they place a great deal of importance on that. It’s very important to them. Our tax structure is now very competitive. Our taxes are lower than all the states surrounding us and our corporate net taxes are all lower. We lowered our corporate rates from 9 to 6.5 percent. That is a very competitive rate. Our cost of doing business is now in the bottom three or four in the country and that’s taxes, labor and energy. Worker compensation rates have gone from the highest, some of the highest in the country, to the bottom 10 as far as rate costs are concerned. Our manufacturing employees … the turnover rate of our employees is very low — second lowest in the country. So we compete very capably and part of our message, part of our job, is to convey that message.

TSJ: What investment opportunities do you see with particular potential?

Burdette: We’ve had, especially in the automotive sector, companies from Japan that have located in West Virginia do very well … most have expanded at least once. The automotive industry in this country is doing better now and the companies they are servicing are doing much better. In Japan, energy is very expensive. Energy was a big deal. There were a lot of questions about Marcellus and what that means for both us and them. The largest coal piles, reserve piles, I’ve ever seen, I saw in Japan. Probably 60 acres of coal stacked as high as I could see, right along the Yokohama coastline. Japan is back in the coal business in a big way. Germany, which got out, is getting back in the coal business because they can’t find a consistent low cost source that coal has been. The second biggest economy is China. They’re building coal-generating power units as fast as they can turn the dirt.

TSJ: What were some unexpected bonuses during the trip?

Burdette: In this particular instance, we coordinated my visit with our participation in an automotive trade show in Yokohama. So we did new business outreach for that as well. In many of the companies I went to were West Virginia flags and pictures of governors that had been there — three or four that I saw on the walls in the office. Diamond Electric is a huge company and when we went in the conference room, (Gov.) Tomblin’s and (former Gov. Joe) Manchin’s picture were there. We hosted, in conjunction with Chubu Economic Confederation, which is kind of like the regional development group in that part of Japan, a seminar and reception in Nagoya and the speaker was Millie Marshall, (president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing, West Virginia). Her topic was how to encourage women to get into manufacturing. There were literally prime minister level discussions about how you go about encouraging more women to get into the manufacturing sector and then comes along Millie Marshall, which was incredibly well-timed. (In Japan), 51 or 52 percent (of women) make up the workforce population but only 25 percent or less are in the manufacturing sector.

TSJ: What stood out to you about the Japanese people and culture?

Burdette: Business cards. They see business cards as an extension of their professional personality. It’s a formal presentation. You present your cards with the name facing them, usually with two hands. They’re a very embracing and warm people and can usually do just fine if you don’t speak a lot of Japanese. They are much more English-friendly than we are Japanese-friendly. They’re also very clean. Not only are the streets clean but you can never find a trash can. Smokers carry a metal change purse to put their ashes and cigarette butts in; you don’t see anyone flicking their cigarette butts on the street. There’s an awful lot of people crowded onto an island country so recycling is a must. It’s very routine. Inside buildings, you just don’t see a trash can, you see specific recycling cans. We traveled by trains almost the whole time we were there, including bullet trains — they’re incredibly convenient and very comfortable and clean. (Bullet trains travel 150-200 mph). You get a cab in Japan and the drivers wear white gloves and there’s a white, almost like a doily, cover on the chairs and they push a button and the doors open. You don’t touch the doors. The doors open on the cabs and you get in, they push a button and they close the doors. The cabs are spotless, impeccable and the cab drivers are well-dressed.

TSJ: Were you pleased overall with what you were able to accomplish during the trip?

Burdette: We’ve built really important economic ties in Japan and especially in Nagoya. As is the case, you have to keep tending that garden. I think we worked on a couple good leads, met with a couple very important leads I think are going to materialize into something and talked to some of our existing companies about our expansions. We will celebrate 25 yeas in Nagoya next year. We’re already planning next year when we celebrate the 25th anniversary.