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Commerce secretary visits Japan

By Rachel Molenda, Staff writer
Photo courtesy West Virginia Department of Commerce
West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Keith Burdette, Charleston Area Alliance President Matt Ballard and Kazuyo Mizutani, deputy director of the Commerce Department’s Japan office, met with Shigeki Nabeshima, Sanko Electric manager, and Hironori Saigusa, Sanko Electric president, as part of a two-week tour of Japan. Burdette and Ballard, along with other economic development officials from the state, are meeting with companies that do business in West Virginia, and pursuing new investment opportunities.

One aspect of Japanese culture that stands out to West Virginia Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette is that the people very much value personal relationships, even in business.

“The folks that we have met here are proud of their relationships in West Virginia,” Burdette said Friday. “They believe they have friends in West Virginia, and they should.”

Burdette — in his third year on the job — is in the middle of a tour of Japan to visit with companies that do business in West Virginia, as well as establish and pursue new investment opportunities.

“We refer to this as an investment mission,” Burdette said in a telephone interview from Japan.

Japanese companies employ nearly 2,500 people in West Virginia and have invested more than $2.1 billion in the state’s economy, according to the state’s Department of Commerce.

Burdette, along with local economic development directors from Charleston, Putnam, Roane and Jackson counties, has so far met with Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Diamond Electric, Sanko Electric and NGK Spark Plugs, among others, he said.

While those companies are growing significantly in the state, Burdette said West Virginia is often not the only place in the United States where they are present. Maintaining a relationship with them is important to expanding their investments in the state and is attractive to companies that are considering coming to the Mountain State, Burdette said.

“Even though they may already be [in West Virginia], we are constantly competing for that next investment, that next growth opportunity,” Burdette said.

Burdette discusses not only companies’ successes, but also their challenges. He said there weren’t issues specific to West Virginia, but companies told Burdette they face high energy costs in Japan.

“We have been able to tout our low energy costs and our abundance of natural gas and the long-term prospects for low costs,” Burdette said. “We’ve been asked about that as much as we’ve told it. Low costs are attractive for investors.”

Burdette wouldn’t get specific regarding companies that may be interested in coming to the state, but he said the automotive industry has done very well here. Last year, Toyota’s plant in Buffalo became its first plant outside of Japan to produce 10 million powertrain units. Many companies, such as Hino Motors Manufacturing in Williamson, first entered the U.S. market through West Virginia, Burdette said.

“We tell companies you can come to West Virginia and get the necessary attention to be successful. You don’t have to be a giant,” Burdette said. “There isn’t a lot of bureaucracy that separates your company and the government.”

The Japanese are discussing the lack of women in the manufacturing industry, Burdette said.

Millie Marshall, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing West Virginia, hosted a seminar on the topic that attracted nearly 100 people, Burdette said.

“[Marshall] spoke very effectively about what we need to do, the cultural changes we need to make in West Virginia and Japan to bring more women into the manufacturing industry and in management roles,” Burdette said.

When asked about the number of women in high management positions in West Virginia, Burdette deferred to statements Marshall made during the seminar.

“[Marshall] said we need to focus on results, not necessarily always the amount of time someone spends in the office,” Burdette said of work-life balance. “We have to acknowledge that we need [women] in both roles and efforts, and we have to be flexible in the way that we advance them in the workplace.”

West Virginia has a lengthy history with Japanese business. Wheeling-Nisshin — a joint venture between Japanese steelmaker Nisshin Steel Co. and Wheeling Pittsburgh Steel Corporation — was established in 1986 as the first Japanese investment in the state, according to the Department of Commerce. In 1990, the Department opened an international division office in Nagoya, Japan, “the industrial heart” of the country, Burdette said. He credited Sen. Jay Rockefeller with recognizing Tokyo wasn’t the place to establish a physical presence. Nineteen companies have established themselves in West Virginia since the office opened, Burdette said. It will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year.

“They are very familiar with Japanese companies,” Burdette said of the Department’s Japanese office. “They have built up a lot of relationships here, and that’s what they do. They’re on the phone. They’re in offices. They make retention visits. When they get a lead, they go visit with companies.”

Burdette will be in Japan until May 22. During that time ,he and economic developers from areas of the state that have most of the Japanese business will exhibit at the 2014 Automotive Engineering Exposition in Yokohama.

“The booth promotes the state as a location for doing business, but we also use it to partner with existing West Virginia-Japanese companies to expand business and employment in our state,” Burdette said.

It’s all part of the investment process, which is one that takes time, Burdette said.

“To entice a company to invest large sums of money in our state doesn’t happen overnight, doesn’t happen in one visit, doesn’t happen in one trade show,” Burdette said.

As for what’s taking place domestically, Burdette said the potential Odebrecht petrochemical complex in Wood County is moving along. The Brazilian company is in the process of securing its air quality permit from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and is also working on getting its voluntary site remediation permit “to identify any potential contaminants that have been on the site from previous owners,” Burdette said.

The Gazette reported in December that John Benedict, the DEP’s air quality director, said Odebrecht’s air quality permitting process would be “difficult.” An application review could take up to two years.

The company hasn’t released information on the plant’s size or potential emissions, but prior reports said DEP officials were confident it would meet the 100,000-tons-per-year emissions threshold to qualify as a “major source” of greenhouse gas emissions.

The company, along with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, made the announcement last November that the Brazilian company was considering the state for its ethane cracker plant, three polyethylene plants and associated infrastructure. Odebrecht bought land in Wood County in January, but Burdette said he couldn’t say the project is a sure thing, only that the state is “very optimistic about the steps they are taking.”

“The Odebrecht folks are very thorough and they’re very cautious,” Burdette said. “They are hypersensitive about creating expectations that they can’t meet.”

Reach Rachel Molenda at or 304-348-5102.


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