The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

June 25, 2008

Exchange-rate shift makes us attractive to Canadian investors

By CARL E. FEATHER - Lifestyle Editor - cfeather@starbeacon.com

Help for Ashtabula County’s economy is coming from north of the border.

Earlier this month, Growth Partnership (GP) for Ashtabula County announced that Pickens Plastics, which has factories in Ashtabula and Jefferson, was purchased by Sigma Industries of Quebec City, Quebec, Canada, for an undisclosed amount. Pickens has 60 employees whose jobs have been secured by the sale, which has the potential of adding more jobs in the years to come, according to Growth Partnership.

The following day, GP announced the pending sale of NEO Plastics in Austinburg to RTS Cos. (U.S.) Inc. NEO, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Feb. 21, 2007, was a supplier for RTS, based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. According to a GP news release, RTS has been producing items at Austinburg for the last month.

The sale is expected to retain 19 existing jobs at the former NEO site. Joseph Mayernick, executive director of GP, said in a news release that RTS will be creating new positions and expanding the footprint of the former NEO plastics building.

“If all goes according to plan RTS will move ahead quickly with its expansion plans, thus adding more dollars to our economy,” Mayernick says. “This entire process represents another save for Ashtabula County, but more importantly, a new investment from a Canadian company which is well respected with substantial abilities to add to the plant and to the county over the years.”

The Canadians’ interest in Ashtabula County reflects a trend in the global marketplace driven primarily by a weak U.S. dollar. American assets traditionally were priced beyond the reach of the Canadian dollar, which once traded as low as 62 cents.

“The price of the assets being purchased (in the U.S.) have come down very considerably,” says Bernie Wolf, director of the International MBA program at Schulich School of Business, York University, Toronto.

The more favorable exchange rate means Canadian investors get more for their money, both in the initial purchase and operating costs.

“They can produce at a lower cost in terms of the exchange rate here,” says Jay Foran, vice president of business attraction for Team NEO in Cleveland, in explaining the imminent factor in the Canadians’ interest in northeast Ohio industry.

Foran says another factor is that the United States is typically the largest market for these Canadian firms and setting up shop here places them closer to their customers.

According to the Society of the Plastics Industry, Canada tied Mexico as the top export destination for U.S. plastics, 24 percent. However, 33 percent of imported plastics came from Canada that year.

Foran says the capable workforce in northeast Ohio is another actor and one cited by Mike Panayi, a partner with RTS.

In the GP news release, Mayernick quotes Panayi as saying “We have come to realize Ashtabula County offers a quality workforce. We believe that our acquisition of the assets at 2900 Industrial Road will be a win-win situation for all involved – the region, the workers and RTS Companies (U.S.) Inc.”

Wolf feels this cross-border investment, which has been going on for years in the opposite direction, is “most likely beneficial” to both economies.

Not everyone views foreign investment as win-win, however. Alan Tonelson, a research fellow with the U.S. Business and Industry Council Educational Foundation in Washington, D.C., says the sales illustrate the weakness of the American economy.

“That means U.S. companies are on sale and Canadian companies clearly think that even those U.S. companies that have gone broke now look so cheap that they are a good bet,” he says of the RTS situation.

From banks and record companies to plastics manufacturers and wineries and distilleries, much of America’s industries are being offered at a tag sale in an effort to attract outside investment. According to the research firm Thomson Financial, foreign investors spent a record $414 billion acquiring American companies, factories and other properties in 2007.

Tonelson says that while these sales look good for the short term because they save jobs, they point out that a fundamental flaw in American trade policy is going uncorrected.

“The U.S. dollar is so weak because the U.S. has mismanaged its trade policies in recent years and foreign creditors are losing faith in our national currency,” he says.

These investors are choosing to make direct investments in hard assets rather than buy stocks and cash. While economic development directors welcome these purchases because they save jobs, Tonelson says it does not bode well for the long-term security of the nation. He compares it to a family that is heavily in debt choosing to sell off their assets rather than tighten their belt and work harder.

“To maintain our living standard, our jobs, we are selling off assets,” Tonelson says of the nation.

Thomas Heffner, a Dublin, Ohio, entrepreneur who runs the Web site economyincrisis.org, describes these deals in a word: “stupid.”

“We’re heading full speed and head first into becoming a colonial state, owned, managed and controlled by foreigners,” he said in a telephone interview.

Tonelson points out that the statistics show 90 percent of the foreign direct investment made in this country has not produced real growth.

“The overwhelming share of foreign direct investment is in existing companies, existing workforces and not in setting up new companies and hiring new employees.”

Foran, however, sees this investment as a good thing for northeast Ohio. He says it not only retains jobs but also offers opportunity for expanding employment. Foran says he has no insight on how the Canadian acquisitions could affect salaries here, but said those are factors the investors take into consideration when deciding on the feasibility of conducting a profitable business in the U.S.

Tonelson says foreign buyers often re-negotiate wages when they move into a distressed market, especially in Ohio and the Midwest, where jobs are scarce.

“The new owners are always looking for new opportunities for new efficiencies,” Tonelson says. “If there are not a lot of attractive job opportunities, the new owners will realize they are in a seller’s market for labor.”

Even if the tables are turned and the U.S. dollar becomes stronger and the local labor market tighter, Foran does not see that as boding poorly for foreign-owned interests in the U.S. “Many international types are learning to hedge their businesses by having operations in both countries,” he says. “It’s sort of like building a portfolio.”

A stronger U.S. economy would also benefit the Canadian owners by placing their product closer to the consumer, he says.

It is likely the local economy will see additional acquisitions by Canadian firms. According to Foran and the Growth Partnership news release, Team NEO and GP will visit Canada in April “to bring dialogue with other Canadian firms looking to relocate.”

“This visit is directly related to the relationship we have developed with RTS,” Mayernick stated in the news release.