Czechs in state on trade mission

Red tape, labor are shared issues

A trade delegation from the Czech Republic learned Thursday that it has things in common with Arkansas businesses when it comes to export markets: complex paperwork and a changing labor force.

Radim Patrik, general director of a slaughterhouse in the western part of the country, said it's far easier for him to ship products within the European Union. But that doesn't mean he's not interested in the U.S. market.

While many Czech businesses want to export to the U.S., trade restrictions, food inspections, safety standards and other issues generally limit trade by larger corporations, he said. However, trade delegations help resolve any false impressions that might be developed about a country or region.

"I don't feel there are so many differences between my country and the U.S." because of the trade tour, Patrik said during a meeting at the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Patrik and 16 other Czech businessmen stopped in Little Rock as part of ongoing efforts by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to attract foreign investment, which so far this year has included delegations from the Netherlands, China, Italy and Vietnam. Another dozen Czech delegation members toured a Lonoke County rice farm.

On Wednesday, the group spent the day in Northwest Arkansas, where it met with University of Arkansas representatives to discuss agricultural research and talked with Wal-Mart officials about Czech-made products that the world's largest retailer could sell.

Randy Zook, president and chief executive officer of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Arkansas, told the delegation that Arkansas is an agricultural state with a number of plants owned by food-processing companies, including Tyson Foods, Con-Agra Foods, Post Holdings Inc. and Riceland Foods.

"There's definitely a market for high-end, specialty food products" in the state, Zook said.

When a delegation member observed that breaking into the U.S. market, especially with agricultural products, can be difficult, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola said agencies such as the Rogers-based Arkansas World Trade Center can help. He said the center assisted two Arkansas-based companies in distributing products such as honey and cheese straws to customers in South Korea.

Zook said central Arkansas food distribution companies already handle many foreign-made products and are always looking for new products to offer.

"If you look at Arkansas as either a new market or a sourcing option, it is very competitive," he said, pointing out that the state is centrally located compared with the rest of the nation and has good access to truck, barge and rail service.

Joey Dean, the Little Rock Regional chamber's vice president for economic development, said many foreign businesses that have a presence in Arkansas started out as small exporters to U.S. markets. He noted that the India-based pipe manufacturer Welspun opened its plant in Little Rock to reduce its shipping costs in reaching North American customers.

When Dean noted that Little Rock is considered a small city compared with New York or Chicago, making it easier for businessmen to develop contacts and personal relationships, another delegate said that factor does "provide an opportunity for us to really push our exporting activity while promoting good products."

Stodola told the group that job training is a top priority in the state as experienced workers near retirement. While technology and improved efficiency will take up some of the slack, education must provide workers with modern technical skills.

Patrik said employers in his country are also having a tough time finding skilled workers to perform manual tasks.

"Nobody wants to work with their hands. Everyone wants to be at the table and in the office," Patrik said.

Later in the day, Marian Jurecka, the Czech Republic's agriculture minister, said through an interpreter that it's very important for trade delegations to meet directly with local economic development officials.

"It primarily gives an opportunity to establish contacts and talk about issues," said Jurecka as he toured the Clinton Presidential Center. And, when they return home, trade delegates can apply what they've learned. Potential Czech export goods could include specialty meats and dairy products, as well as malt and hops used in the brewing process, he said.

Lenka Horakova, director of European business development for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said trade delegations give participants a better feel for the language and culture of a foreign market.

Horakova, who is also honorary consul for the Czech Republic in Arkansas, said it also helps smaller companies build relationships needed to sell products or open offices in international markets. She said such visits are a mix of business and political diplomacy.

"You start with trade. Trade leads to more opportunities," said Horakova. "Many times down the road, companies set up distribution centers or manufacturing facilities which consequently leads to new jobs and new investments and all of that is good for Arkansas."

Business on 03/27/2015