South Korean companies that make everything from tents to food preparation equipment and paving technology spent three days exploring investment opportunities in an Ohio area hard hit by layoffs in the auto and transportation industries.
The visit comes as South Korean businesses are increasing their presence in the United States, with direct investment growing from $1.4 billion in 2003 to $13.1 billion in 2007.
Several were interested in cashing in on a growth spurt at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base by winning contracts for military-related products, such as toothbrush kits, heavy duty tents and camouflage structures.
"They wanted to better understand how they could do business with Wright-Patterson and the U.S. military," said Patrick Titterington, city director of nearby Troy, who helped arrange the visit. They also are interested in exploring partnerships with American companies, he said.
Korean businesses are making similar stops around the nation. Although South Korea is grappling with its worst slowdown since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, the country has recently reported economic rebounds as government stimulus efforts around the world begin to show results.
In September, more than 70 companies, including Hyundai Motor Co., will showcase their products during an exhibition at the Navy Pier in Chicago. And earlier this month, a consortium of 12 Korean businesses and agencies spent a week in California in hopes of bidding for the state's $45 billion bullet-train project.
Sean Connell, executive director of the U.S.-Korea Business Council, said Korean companies are going more global and want to be close to their customers, such as purchasers of cars and electronics.
In recent years, Hyundai opened an auto plant outside Montgomery, Alabama, Samsung Electronics Co. opened a semiconductor factory in Austin, Texas, and Kia Motors Corp. is building a manufacturing plant in West Point, Georgia. The Hyundai plant employs 3,100 workers and will add 522 jobs with construction of a new engine plant, bringing its total capital investment to $1.7 billion.
In southwest Ohio last week, the 18 executives representing 11 South Korean companies presented their products to about 50 area businesses, were briefed on government programs related to international trade and toured several businesses. The Korean companies included EMW Energy, which makes batteries, and Nano International Technology, which makes environmental-control equipment.
The Dayton area has been hammered by job losses in the past year. In December, General Motors Corp. closed its SUV plant in suburban Moraine, putting 1,100 autoworkers out of jobs. And DHL Express is moving out of nearby Wilmington, resulting in the loss of about 6,000 air cargo jobs so far.
Wright-Patterson is a bright spot. The base is preparing to become home to an aerospace medicine mission currently performed in Texas. That will mean about 1,100 jobs that include high-paid engineers and scientists.
Paul Kwak, a Cleveland-based Korean businessman who helped arrange the visit, said the companies see the region as a cross section of American businesses in a good geographic location.
Seongdong Wee, president of KOHAT, an airport-pavement technology company, said he was "strongly impressed" with the visit and is encouraged about winning a contract to do business with Wright-Patterson.
Titterington said two of the Korean companies are discussing how to collaborate with two local companies. He would not identify the companies.
"There was a lot more progress than we thought," he said. "A lot of it is building relationships, and those kinds of things take time."
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