Since arriving in South America as Pennsylvania’s top salesman, Gov. Tom Corbett has employed a three-point pitch — emphasizing the state’s location, energy costs and workforce — as he attempts to win foreign investment
At events that begin early in the morning and often extend into the night, Mr. Corbett has told representatives of banks, oil and gas companies and other businesses that 60 percent of the North American population can be reached in a day’s drive — a “long day’s drive,” he allows — from Pennsylvania. With the advent of natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale, he says, energy costs are lower in Pennsylvania than other U.S. states. And he describes the state’s workforce as hard-working and well-trained.
“This is a sales job for our state, and for the people of our state,” Mr. Corbett said in an interview. “They definitely, clearly have an interest in the United States. Now it’s my job to try to get them to come to our state, and I think I’ve got three good points to sell them on.”
The trade mission began last Sunday in Sao Paulo, the largest city in South America, spent a day in Rio de Janeiro and continued on to Santiago, to the capital of Chile, where the trip concludes Tuesday. It is intended to spur economic development in Pennsylvania, both by connecting businesses with potential export clients and by introducing the state to foreign executives looking to invest abroad.
Mr. Corbett has a role in both pursuits. His name on an invitation allows Pennsylvania businesspeople to mingle with Brazilian and Chilean executives who otherwise would be hard to meet, people involved in the mission say.
But once here, his central task is to persuade foreign companies that setting up shop in Pennsylvania could be the best way for them to enter the United States. C. Alan Walker, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development, has introduced Mr. Corbett at meetings as the “state’s “chief marketing officer.”
As such, the governor sits at the head of the table and stands at the front of the room, easy to spot with his head of white hair and the cluster of people that typically surrounds him.
In formal remarks, Mr. Corbett often sticks to a basic set of points. But afterward he talks with attendees until his staff signals it’s time to continue ahead on a schedule that most days spans from 8 a.m. till well past dark, taking him on planes between cities and with a police escort through the gridlocked streets of Sao Paulo.
Even after falling ill on Friday, his first morning in Chile, he was back to work by a lunchtime session.
Just stating the facts
In meetings, the governor speaks warmly of his host countries, telling of his daughter’s time studying abroad in Santiago and drawing comparisons — in areas like the importance of agriculture — between both nations and the state of Pennsylvania.
When speaking of his own state, especially in response to questions, Mr. Corbett can be blunt. Sometimes this is to point out an attractive quality
“One of the reasons to come to Pennsylvania — and I’m shortening my speech — is it’s cheaper than the other big cities in the United States,” he told a luncheon of travel agents in Sao Paulo. The crowd laughed even before his translator began her Portuguese rendition.
At other times, Mr. Corbett told prospective investors of ways the state compares less favorably, although always in the context of attempts at change. Discussing taxes with a group of Brazilian CEOs, he volunteered that Pennsylvania has some work to do on corporate rates.
“We have a goal, as we get our budget balanced and we see the economy grow, of taking our corporate net income tax, which is one of the highest in the country — 9.9 percent — by 2025 down to 6.9 percent,” he said.
Mr. Corbett said in an interview here that such mentions are not by accident.
“I’m always frank. I always assume that they know more about our country, and so I’m not trying to hide anything,” he said, adding that he tells his hosts the delegation has come to hear from them. “I don’t want to be considered that American who knows everything. We want to learn. We want to be friends. We want to be partners.”
Guests from Brazil and Chile have learned details of Pennsylvania unrelated to any business prospect. At a reception at his residence, the U.S. consul general in Sao Paulo, Dennis Hankins, told visitors that Pennsylvania was home to the first daily newspaper, the oldest university and the first historically black university in the United States.
When it came his turn, Mr. Corbett, whose home is in Shaler, added: “I would note that the first radio station in the world originated in Pennsylvania, KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. So we claim that as another first.”
Some guests heard quite a bit about the state-run liquor system in Pennsylvania, and current Republican efforts to turn both wholesale and retail operations over to the private sector. After passing the House last month, legislation to phase out state stores awaits hearings in the Senate.
At one session, Mr. Corbett explained to Brazilian executives the types of outlets that sell liquor and wine, beer by the six-pack or the case, and then spoke admiringly of how easy alcohol was to find in Sao Paulo.
“My wife and I on Sunday went to the little grocery store down the street,” he said. “We started taking pictures. The wine selection, the beer selection, the liquor selection. I’m going to take it back and show the members of the House and Senate this is what it can look like.
“You all take it for granted, I’m sure,” he added. “But for us, if you want to go buy wine and liquor on a Sunday, you can’t do it.”
The governor clarified that there are state stores with Sunday sales, but not before hearty chuckles erupted around the conference room.
The Braskem experience
But the points that Mr. Corbett made again and again were those more central to the concerns of a manufacturer or other business seeking a location to set up shop.
Mr. Corbett leads with Pennsylvania’s proximity to market, employing a statistic that administration officials say comes from population data for the area within 500 miles of the Pennsylvania border — a radius that extends into South Carolina and Wisconsin and reaches the city of Quebec.
He promises a favorable cost of energy, a topic of general concern but one that has been raised continuously here in Chile, where a reliance on imported coal and hydroelectric has policymakers searching for ways to secure reliable energy as the economy continues to grow.
Energy costs in Pennsylvania have plummeted since 2008, when Marcellus Shale drilling picked up: Natural gas costs are down 50 percent since then, and electricity costs down more than 40 percent, according to the Department of Community and Economic Development.
And he says employers would be hiring from a population with a strong work ethic, educated in a system he says will increasingly prepare them for today’s jobs.
It’s a case that has had recent success with the Brazilian petrochemical company Braskem, which last year acquired a portion of a refinery at Marcus Hook, near Philadelphia. Fernando Musa, CEO of Braskem America, said in an interview at the company’s Sao Paulo headquarters that companies will find Pennsylvania a good place to invest because of its location, inexpensive energy and availability of natural gas as a feedstock.
“I don’t think it’s an argument,” Mr. Musa said of the governor’s case. “It’s a fact. He’s just describing the reality that we see and we describe and replicate.”
After hearing the Pennsylvania delegation advocate for foreign investment within its borders, representatives of local companies often respond with detailed questions about business conditions in the state. But such deals take time, and if Mr. Corbett has succeeded in sparking interest here, it could still be years before a Brazilian or Chilean company opens a new set of doors in Pennsylvania.