Global Matters: The Blaine House through a global lens

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Given the many issues facing Maine voters, and with all candidates, particularly gubernatorial candidates, running at full tilt to address kitchen-table issues of jobs, the economy and state government efficiency, it’s little wonder that there has been no discussion of globalization, export opportunities, foreign investment and Maine’s international profile in the current campaign.

The immediate connection between state leadership and Maine’s challenges and opportunities in the global economy may not be obvious, but such leadership – particularly in the governor’s office – is crucial to our continuing effort to thrive in a hyper-competitive global business environment.

Maine businesses sell their good and services overseas everyday, outstripping local competitors and other global exporters to win sales. These exports are vital to the state’s economy. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, for every billion dollars of product exported, 20,000 jobs are supported. Maine exported nearly $2.3 billion worth of products in 2009.

Do the math.

If we’re serious about supporting our manufacturing sector in Maine, we’ve got to continue to be serious about supporting our exporters.

We’ve also got to get serious about attracting foreign investment to Maine.

Foreign investment has become something of a four-letter word, since some companies open facilities abroad simply to secure a cheaper labor force, which often equates to the loss of local jobs.

The truth, of course, is more complicated than a sound bite will permit.

With global markets open to investment, the company that foregoes an opportunity to reduce its costs will likely find its goods or services more expensive than the goods or services offered by a competitor. This is true whether those costs are labor, raw materials, energy or transportation.

If a competitor reduces its costs and you don’t, you’d better be able to explain to your customers why they should pay more for your products. Some may be persuaded and touched by loyalty to the local workforce, but most will opt for the lower price, or shorter shipping times, or the availability of product closer to market.

This is the current global economic reality. We don’t have to like it, but we do have to deal with it.

Bottom line: stripped of all the rhetoric, the anger and the nostalgia for a simpler time, we have to make Maine’s business environment more attractive not only to preserve and support our own businesses, but also to attract other businesses and investors who may be interested in a North American manufacturing center, distribution point, sales office, back-office or corporate headquarters.

There are approximately 100 foreign-owned companies and subsidiaries currently operating in Maine, directly employing 6,600 workers.

In other words, foreign investment in Maine means jobs; it means previously shuttered mills that now operate; it means active supply chains; it means traffic at our ports; it means the difference between stagnation and growth.

Now, attracting foreign investment is a complex endeavor. It requires a frank assessment of our strategic assets, the ability to articulate the value of those assets, the wherewithal to market those assets and the profile and professionalism to stand out among the competition.

The Maine International Trade Center, which takes the lead on foreign investment attraction efforts for Maine, has recently partnered with industry associations and the private sector to pitch Maine’s composite and advanced textile industries and our renewable energy potential abroad. These efforts have already borne fruit, as potential investors from Spain, Norway and Germany have recently been to the state to meet with our own key players in wind component manufacturing and offshore wind platform engineering and construction. Discussions are ongoing.

Next week, however, a new governor will be elected, and come January, he or she will be the standard bearer for our fledgling efforts to attract major investment to the state.

Who among the candidates understands international business? Who has experience in relevant markets and industries?

Whom do you want negotiating with a cadre of savvy investors considering competing locations in North America?

Our prospects for growth will be greatly enhanced if we succeed because of our governor, not in spite of our governor. Maine needs a governor with the profile, the experience and the intellect to market the state and negotiate from a position of industry understanding.

Independent candidate Eliot Cutler has the relevant business credentials to enable Maine to capitalize on the challenging but very real opportunities presented in the global economy.

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Perry B. Newman is a South Portland resident and president of Atlantica Group, an international business consulting firm based in Portland, with clients in North America, Israel and Europe.

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