Tallahassee firms build trade connections with China
With the meteoric growth of motor vehicle ownership in China, Tallahassee company BEC Industries saw an opportunity to offer an solution for the huge parking problem that has resulted.
BEC has a system that automates the storage of vehicles in parking garages, essentially doubling the number of vehicles that can occupy the typical structure.
Through its involvement in the Economic Development Council of Tallahassee-Leon County's trade development work in China, BEC has met and forged a business relationship with a Chinese company that would like to build BEC's system.
"They are very interested in that technology because that's what they do - they build parking garages and parking facilities," said Brian Pfeifer, BEC's director of engineering.
BEC's vehicle system can be built for about the same cost per parking space, but double the number of cars stored. "That's why people are interested in it. It's just a matter of getting the first one built," Pfeifer said.
BEC's experience thus far, and that of several other local companies, is the result of efforts by local leaders who have established their own ties there in economic development circles, as well as an official Sister City relationship between Tallahassee and Rugao, a city of 1.5 million people in eastern China.
The parking situation worsens almost by the day, Pfeifer added. "They have had such an explosion. Everyone is starting to make money there and everyone is buying a car."
A similar price with twice the capacity of a traditional parking structure is what makes BEC's vehicle system attractive. "That's why people are interested in it. It's just a matter of getting the first one built," Pfeifer said.
Just as Tallahassee leaders seek economic growth, officials from Rugao are eager for their own industries to flourish and expand with help from their U.S. contacts. From that mutual interest has come the all-important personal relationships, upon which business deals are built.
Rugao has a port on China's Yangtze River and is 75 miles from Shanghai. The city has grown considerably over the last 10-15 years, said Ying Wang, a CPA at local accounting firm Thomas Howell Ferguson and president of the Tallahassee-Rugao Sister City Committee.
"It is a very good place to build this Sister City relationship," Wang added.
Also making the trips to China have been representatives of Florida State and Florida A&M universities, investigating potential partnerships with their Chinese counterparts on research initiatives and faculty/student exchange programs, she said.
It was the pioneering work of FSU professor Jim P. Zheng in nanotechnology that led to a breakthrough in the design of hydrogen fuel cells, and from that came the launch of Bing Energy Inc. The business is now based in Tallahassee, but has a production facility in Rugao.
That 100,000-square-foot manufacturing operation is where Bing personnel design and build test sets for fuel-cell assemblies, as well as the housings for the assembly, said Dean Minardi, Bing's chief financial officer.
Rugao spent $9 million on the new factory for Bing. Much of that funding came from the Chinese national government, which is investing heavily in private businesses in an effort to improve China's energy technology.
Rugao was a logical point-of-entry for energy-saving compressor manufacturer Danfoss Turbocor of Tallahassee and the company Nopetro, which will open its first compressed natural gas fueling station in Tallahassee next month.
"It was a great trip," said Jack Locke, Nopetro's president, of his June visit to Rugao. "China is interested in natural gas for transportation. There are several instances where the government covers the costs for converting over to natural gas fuel."
Locke accompanied Tallahassee Mayor John Marks and others to the 15th Annual Rugao Economic Development Fair. There he learned more about potential business opportunities, including Nopetro offering consulting services, and Tallahassee's importance to China's businesses.
"They see Tallahassee as a gateway to the rest of Florida because it's the capital city," Locke noted. By building connections here, there's a basis for further expansion to markets statewide and beyond.
Beth Kirkland, the EDC's executive director, said the council allocates about $20,000 or about 2 percent of its annual budget for its international-business program. That includes hosting delegations and consular officials in Tallahassee, promoting local companies and industries overseas, supporting its own international business development committee, and travel on trade missions.
In addition to China, the EDC also participated with economic development representatives from Northwest Florida at the recent Farnborough International Air Show, a major aviation and aerospace event that takes place every other year in England.
In China, the EDC points to tangible results for companies like Bing and BEC Industries, as well as signing an agreement to establish the Rugao-Tallahassee Joint International Economic, Science and Technology Industrial Park.
The memorandum of understanding states that Rugao will work to set aside up to 3,000 acres in the community for development projects involving firms from the two cities.
"It was a wonderful gesture," said Karen Moore, chair of the EDC, who was in Rugao and participated in the signing ceremony. "I think that the mayor and the economic development officials in Rugao realized they were serious about this and that they wanted some skin in the game."