More than a month has passed since Arkansas envoys returned from a European business trip to reaffirm ongoing friendships and establish new ones.
Gov. Mike Beebe and Grant Tennille, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, are still aglow with expectations from their trans-Atlantic trade mission.
During a recent debriefing at the governor’s office, Beebe and Tennille hinted that meetings in England, France and the Czech Republic would yield announcements in the not-so-distant future regarding new jobs and capital investment in Arkansas.
The nine-day commercial expedition in July was highlighted by the state’s maiden flight to advance the Arkansas aerospace industry at the Farnborough International Airshow, about an hour southwest of London.
The aerospace sector directly employs 8,950 people in Arkansas. Production at aerospace facilities around the state accounted for exports of more than $1.8 billion, a figure that doesn’t include the shadowy dollars of military sales.
“It is our No. 1 value-added export,” Tennille said.
The tent-city gathering of aerospace advocates and business folk along the taxiways at the Farnborough Airport did not disappoint.
The Arkansas contingent made connections with a multinational ensemble to the serenade of roaring jet turbines racing across the sky, whirring helicopter blades beating back gravity and rumbling piston-driven engines spinning propellers.
“It was huge,” Beebe said. “There were companies there from virtually all over the globe.”
Arkansas was one of nearly 400 newcomers among about 1,500 exhibitors at Farnborough 2014, which drew 100,000-plus visitors during the July 14-18 trade show.
At last tally, aerospace companies booked $168 billion worth of business at the event that showcased military and civilian goods.
The final two days of the international event, which alternates annually between Farnborough and Paris, is open to the general public.
“We’ll be going to Paris next year,” Tennille said.
“Somebody will,” Beebe said with a laugh. “I won’t,” he added, a nod to his pending term-limited exodus from the governor’s mansion in January.
Gina Radke, president and CEO of Galley Support Innovations Inc. in Sherwood, has participated in European aerospace trade shows before, but this was her company’s first time at the granddaddy of them all.
Radke said having GSI on display as part of the Arkansas delegation under the Arkansas banner at Farnborough brought much added attention.
“It was not just your company, but your state and other members of the industry in your state,” she said in a telephone interview. “That speaks more to the potential customers than anything.”
GSI was one of three Arkansas companies that contributed financially to the Arkansas trade booth at Farnborough. Other corporate contributors and Arkansas participants were CAVU Aerospace Inc., which operates an aircraft teardown and salvage operation at the Stuttgart Airport, and Actronix Inc., which produces cabling assemblies, wiring harnesses and more at its worldwide headquarters in Flippin and Newport.
“We did make some really good contacts that we wouldn’t have made if we didn’t go on the trip,” GSI’s Radke said. “Five minutes ago, I went through a stack of business cards I picked up in England to get invites out to the National Business Aviation Association Convention & Exhibition in October in Orlando.”
Radke is working on deals represented by some of those calling cards, too.
Interest is keen on products with smartphone interface that meet FAA standards for the top of the top-end market that caters to VVIPs (Very Very Important Persons, not mere VIPs).
“They want their phones to do the same things they will do at their homes and have the same amenities in their aircraft that they have in their homes,” she said.
GSI produces locks, latches and door-bolting systems for commercial and private aviation clients.
While Arkansas was new to the party, the state wasn’t a wallflower presence at Farnborough. Arkansas is home to operations for some of the biggest names in aerospace, such as Dassault Falcon, Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney and Raytheon, and the cachet of those firms didn’t go unnoticed.
“We have strong competition from other states in our region,” Beebe said. “We have some degree of an advantage with our current industry partners. They give us a resource that opens people’s eyes.”
The AEDC covered $15,000 of the overall $43,225 price tag to rent space, furnish the nearly 3,500-SF Arkansas booth with conventional and high-tech marketing gadgetry and creature comforts plus cater food and drink at Farnborough.
The Arkansas Aerospace & Defense Alliance, State Chamber of Commerce and Arkansas World Trade Center each contributed $5,000. The three Arkansas companies each invested $2,000 along with the Bill & Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock, Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in Bentonville and the Arkansas Aeroplex in Blytheville, all of which also sent representatives.
A $1,125 offering from the Arkansas Economic Development Foundation completed the funding for the aerospace trade show. Each of the parties covered its own hotel, travel and dining expenses.
“This was sort of a toe in the water,” Tennille said. “It wasn’t inexpensive to do. It became apparent when we got there we were being outspent by other states.
“One of the big drivers for those states seems to be participation by industry. We certainly had some, and we were really, really grateful that we had three companies that went with us and helped assume some of the risk.
“We’re going to drive toward more company participation. That’s how you finance something like this.
“The state bore the lion’s share, and we were happy to do it. In the future, we may bear the lion’s share again or the other participants may want to take the ball and run with it.”
In addition to networking at the world’s largest aerospace expo, the travel itinerary for Beebe, Tennille and other members of State Capitol contingent included stopovers in Paris and Prague.
“Our challenge and goal is to pack these trips so full you don’t need to do it very often,” Tennille said. “Our travel budget won’t sustain a big volume of overseas travel. We loaded up on a whole lot of opportunity. If you’re going to make the governor travel across the ocean, you better make it worthwhile.”
After attending the first two days of Farnborough and squeezing in some non-aerospace meetings in London, they went to Paris to visit with top executives at three French firms with major facilities in Arkansas: Dassault Falcon (custom jets in Little Rock), L’Oréal (Maybelline cosmetics in North Little Rock) and Pernod Recarde (liqueur distillery in Fort Smith).
“Maintaining those relationships is just critical,” Tennille said. “I think you will see the first results from those meetings in Paris within weeks.”
“It is an example of your presence being meaningful,” Beebe said. “Company decision-makers are influenced by your efforts and presence.”
In Prague, the Arkansas group met with representatives of Czech firms interested in doing business in the United States.
During Beebe’s presentation, a translator communicated his remarks to the reserved and polite gathering, linked by headset.
The delegation included a secret weapon that Beebe said “blew them away”: Lenka Horakova, a Czech native and AEDC’s project manager for Europe.
“Instantaneously, the crowd went from [thinking], ‘Arkansas, that’s where Bill Clinton is from, and it’s somewhere in the middle of America,’ to ‘Arkansas, I know where it is, and I have a phone number of a Czech who wants me to come there.’”
Horakova, a former foreign exchange high school student who graduated from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, didn’t need a translator.
When she started speaking, the female translator turned around to the podium in surprise, and everyone else in the room went “Oh,” as the headsets came off.Ã¢©The governor followed up her comments with a simple closing: “In case it’s not clear, we’re serious about this. We want you.”
The invitation was well received.