A trade mission to Japan led by Gov. Nikki Haley helped build cultural inroads with businesses in the island nation and could attract more investment in South Carolina.
That was the assessment of Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt of the weeklong trip during a conference call with reporters on Thursday.
“It’s about relationship building … and the merging of cultures,” said Hitt, who did not go on the trip. “It’s important that we go and show the appropriate respect to them and how they do business.”
Japan, Hitt noted, follows only Germany as the state’s leading international economic partner. The 147 Japanese-affiliated companies in the state have invested $1.6 billion here since 2006. They employ 12,500 workers.
Hitt said the gathering – which alternates each year between the U.S. and Japan was uniquely important this year because of last year’s earthquake and tsunami. Because of the disaster, Japanese companies want to expand more of their manufacturing outside of the country.
“We’re in competition with our neighbors to try to win some of this business from Japan,” he said. “And if you don’t do your homework, you’re likely to come in second.”
South Carolina was one of seven states to participate in the Southeast U.S./Japan Association gathering, which ran from Sept. 13 through Sept. 15 at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel. In addition to Haley and first gentleman Michael Haley, four other governors attended from Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee.
“CEOs want to talk to CEOs,” Hitt said. “The governor is a very important person in a foreign environment. They are considered the CEO.”
In addition to the Haleys, one gubernatorial aide and two security guards, the delegation consisted of seven Commerce staffers led by deputy commerce secretary George Patrick, and 27 delegates from regional economic development organizations and private companies. The estimated cost to the state’s taxpayers will be $54,000 for travel, hotel and meals, Hitt said, with other costs covered by sponsors or the regional partners. Michael Haley paid his own way.
The delegation – split into two teams led by Gov. Haley and Patrick – held a total of 23 meetings, according to Commerce. Haley attended 16 of them.
In addition, Haley was the keynote speaker at a $75-a-seat American Chamber of Commerce in Japan luncheon at the Tokyo American Club.
Although no deals were announced during the trip, it presented an opportunity to maintain old relationships with companies such as Fuji, Honda and Bridgestone, and build new ones, a spokesman for the governor said.
“Whether they were meeting with businesses – like Honda, Fuji or Showa Denko – that already call South Carolina home or meeting with new prospects, they had a great story to tell about South Carolina, where we’re continuing to strengthen our environment for business development,” Rob Godfrey wrote in an email.
Haley was criticized for a trip to the Paris Air Show in 2011. It cost taxpayers $127,000, which included luxuries such as a rented chalet, expensive hotel rooms and a side trip to Munich. Haley’s husband also was on that trip, but also paid his own way.
Michael Haley did not accompany his wife to July’s Farnborough International air show in London. That trip, which had a similar delegation of 28 members, cost taxpayers $106,000.