Nebraska’s ties to China show gains

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Posted: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 12:00 am

China is likely to surpass Japan as Nebraska’s third-largest overseas trading partner, according to the state’s go-to man for Asian commerce.

“China will probably overtake Japan in the next four to five years,” said Joe Chapuran, international development manager for the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, speaking at a conference for teachers Tuesday at the Union Pacific Center.

Nebraska’s top export destinations are Canada, followed by Mexico, then Japan and China. But the growth is with the world’s most populous nation: Exports of Nebraska farm products, machinery, chemicals and other goods to China more than doubled between 2005 and 2010 to $229 million, according to state records.

Nebraska has been angling hard after China under Gov. Dave Heineman, who led a trade mission there last year with state officials and business leaders. Since, the state has opened a permanent trade office in China and says five Chinese companies are now operating in Nebraska as a result of recent recruiting and economic development efforts.

The Tuesday event was sponsored by the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Economic Education, an effort now in its fifth year to encourage teachers to emphasize economic and financial proficiency among their students. About 40 Nebraska teachers attended Tuesday, with expert speakers from business, government and academia scheduled to continue today.

“The goal is to teach more economics to teachers so they can teach the students,” said James Dick, director of the UNO Center for Economic Education.

Sid Conrad, an economics teacher at the middle school and high school in Norris, said his students always get a big helping of international trade in his classes. A better working knowledge of Nebraska’s external ties, he said, will allow him to devise talking points that he said will better resonate with Nebraska students.

“International trade is a huge issue,” he said. “Basically, the more you trade, the wealthier you get.”

The case of Worldlawn Power Equipment in Beatrice is illustrative, said Chapuran, the economic developer. The company was importing lawn mowers into the United States and had opened a sales and distribution office in California. As sales increased, it made sense to manufacture in the United States.

Nebraska officials sold the company on the ease of shipping throughout the United States from the state and on a then-shuttered power equipment factory in Beatrice that has a history of lawn mower manufacturing. Operations in the southeast Nebraska city began in 2011.

“They now have about 30 employees and have doubled their U.S. market share to 2.5 percent,” Chapuran said. “That might not sound like a lot, but think about all the lawn mowers sold.”

Chapuran said China was not the first choice among state recruiters and developers as a point of emphasis in recent years. It was Brazil, often cited as one the fastest-growing world economies.

But it just didn’t work out, Chapuran said, with heavy restrictions, such as requiring trade partners to do a certain amount of manufacturing within the country. And the country’s fast internal growth was soaking up most of the capital, leaving little for foreign deployment, Chapuran said.

“It was really hard to export to Brazil, and there were not a lot of Brazilian companies investing around the world,” he said.

Another China advocate is Columbus-based Behlen Manufacturing, maker of grain bins, fence gates and metal buildings. It operates a plant in Beijing, and has for about 10 years. From it, Behlen has been a part of China’s construction boom, selling its metal buildings to the world’s fastest-growing economy.

Richard Casey, the company’s chief financial officer, told the teachers that prospective investors in China should not think they are the business experts because they come from Western nations. China, he said, has been a civilization for thousands of years, and despite decades of communist rule, a sophisticated business and trading culture prevails.

“You don’t want to go over there and think you know everything,” he said.

Speakers throughout the day acknowledged China’s struggles, with Chapuran saying people there are aware of the nation’s environmental, worker safety and civil rights deficits. The country is ruled by the Communist Party of China, which imposes major restrictions of freedom of the press, religion and family planning.

That power, however, has attracted some admirers among Western investors frustrated with U.S. politics. Casey, the Behlen executive, said the United States is paralyzed with bureaucracy and competing political aims and that it once took 12 years to get a road bridge built in the company’s home base of Columbus.

“Central planning, there is something to be said about that,” said Casey, later qualifying his statement by saying the Untied States is the greatest nation on earth.

“They get things done, while we have gridlock.”

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