Conn. group promotes trade with central Europe
HARTFORD, Conn.—Connecticut businesses seeking new markets in Europe have found an improbable group of allies: transplanted Hungarians and Romanians led by a business professor raised in Alabama who speaks Hungarian at home.
The push for greater trade between Connecticut's manufacturers and central Europe complements state and federal efforts. It also taps into an overseas market that boomed following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but has more recently felt the impact of the weak global economy and western Europe's debt problems.
Americans don't often think about Central Europe, said Christopher Ball, a Quinnipiac University economics professor who has organized a trade partnership with Hungary, Romania and other central European countries.
"People think a lot about China," he said.
To change that, Ball and others organized the Central and Eastern European Network, a group of former Hungarian, Romanian and other central European business representatives, lawyers and academics who want to boost trade with their former homelands.
"We just want to foster trade, to open opportunities there and open opportunities here," he said.
The network recently hosted its first Connecticut trade visit, which Ball said he hopes to organize annually. The Danube Chambers of Commerce Association, which represents companies in Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and Serbia, met last month with state and federal economic development officials and Connecticut businesses.
Catherine Smith, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said she sees nothing unusual about private citizens pitching in with the complicated work of international trade.
"I view it as a normal part of give-and-take with the private sector," she said. "There are certain pockets of strong interest for cultural reasons, personal reasons."
Trade between Connecticut and central European countries is small. For the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, it amounted to $23.7 million, a fraction of 1 percent of the $12 billion in trade between Connecticut companies and the rest of the world, according to the Commerce Department.
But there is a deep well of support for expanding ties with central Europe. About 417,000 people, or roughly 10 percent of the state's population, are emigrants or people whose families came to Connecticut from Poland, Bulgaria, the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Bela Liptak, for example, is a Hungarian emigrant who owns an engineering consulting business in Stamford and was asked by Ball to participate in the Central and Eastern European Network. He said trade between the U.S. and central European countries is a "natural fit."
Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and other countries have good schools, low wages and a strong work ethic, he said. And the United States has access to technology and the ability to finance projects, Liptak said.
Connecticut can use some help. The Department of Economic and Community Development does not have an office in Europe to promote trade, Smith said, but sends representatives to trade gatherings such as the Paris Air Show, a key annual aerospace event.
The agency is looking to hire a staffer who will lead international marketing and promotion, she said.
The state also relies on the U.S. Department of Commerce, which operates an office in Middletown. Anne Evans, district director of the agency's International Trade Administration, said private groups such as the Central and Eastern European Network can make a difference. She said Ball provides "some great introductions" to companies in Connecticut and central Europe, but the Commerce Department, which has offices in 80 countries, can arrange business-to-business meetings.
"It's helpful to partner as much as you can. It's the only way you can make it," Evans said.
Organizing the Central and Eastern European Network came naturally to Ball, who holds the Istvan Szechenyi chair in international economics, named for a 19th-century Hungarian leader credited for linking Buda and Pest across the Danube River.
A graduate of the University of Alabama, Ball also studied at the London School of Economics and worked in Hungary where he met his wife.
"It might sound funny for a guy from Alabama, but we only speak Hungarian at home with the kids," Ball said.
Ball has plenty of company among academics getting involved in the drive for more trade, which increasingly is credited for boosting the bottom line for U.S. companies that tap overseas markets.
Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., operates the John H. Chafee Center for International Business, which does market research, organizes trade missions and otherwise helps promote trade for Rhode Island's small manufacturing, defense, medical technology and other businesses.
"We have to look at our small businesses," said Ray Fogarty, director of the Chafee center. "We don't have many companies that are mega-companies."
And 33 federally funded Centers for International Business Education and Research promote trade and business at business schools in the United States, said Mark J. Ballam, principal staff officer at the dean's office at the College of Business Administration at San Diego State University.
"Our focus is doing business outside the United States," he said. "We need to understand how the rest of the world works."
Ball said trade is wrongly blamed for costing U.S. jobs.
"I think of international trade and international business as international cooperation," he said. "We often incorrectly think of it as competition. Companies compete but when you open up and allow more trade you allow more opportunities to cooperate."