S.C. trade mission to Japan to seek manufacturers

Gary Garfield, CEO of Japan-owned Bridgestone Americas, announced last year a $1.2 billion investment to create 850 jobs in Aiken County. (Tracy Glantz/The State/File)

COLUMBIA — A trade mission in Tokyo that Gov. Nikki Haley is leading this week is intended to capitalize on Japanese companies wanting to expand their manufacturing outside the island nation after last year’s earthquake and tsunami, the S.C. Department of the Commerce said.

“This is the optimum time for us to pay attention,” Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt said during a conference call about the trip last week. Japanese companies “want to have plants in multiple locations.”

Haley was scheduled to arrive Sunday.

South Carolina is one of seven states to participate in the Japan-U.S. Southeast Association gathering, which runs for three days of the trip starting Thursday at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel.

However, Haley and the other 450 members of the delegation will hold a series of meetings with Japanese companies already doing business in South Carolina, such as Honda, Fuji and Bridgestone, Hitt said. They also will meet with companies that may be contemplating coming to the state, he said.

Hitt noted that 147 Japanese-affiliated companies have invested $1.6 billion in South Carolina since 2006. They employ 12,500 workers.

Japan follows only Germany as the state’s leading international economic partner.

Although no deals are expected to be announced during the trip, it presents an opportunity to renew old relationships and build new ones, Hitt said.

Haley will be part of a delegation of about 40 members, most from regional economic development alliances and counties, Hitt said. First gentleman Michael Haley will is attending. “He’s going on his own nickel,” Hitt said.

Haley’s spokesman, Rob Godfrey, confirmed that Michael Haley, an S.C. National Guardsman set to deploy to Afghanistan in January, is paying his own way.

“Like the governor, the first gentleman is focused on putting South Carolinians back to work and will have a full schedule of business development and recruitment meetings in Japan,” Godfrey wrote in an email. “He’ll pay his own way, including air fare, lodging and meals, as he has done in the past.”

Gov. 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 in London. That trip, which had a similar delegation of 28 members, cost taxpayers $106,000.

In addition to her husband, Haley has one member from her staff attending the Tokyo summit and two SLED security guards. Commerce has a contingent of four.

Haley is one of five governors on the trip, each hoping to capitalize on Japanese companies’ willingness to locate plants outside of the country in the wake of the tsunami.

On Wednesday, she will be the only speaker at the $75-a-seat American Chamber of Commerce in Japan luncheon at the Tokyo American Club. She figures prominently on the group’s website promoting the event.

“It’s a great opportunity to get South Carolina’s name out there and let them know we are ready to do business,” said Clarke Thompson, commerce’s director of international trade.