WEIRTON – A trip overseas could pay big dividends for West Virginia and the Ohio Valley. Pat Ford, executive director of the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle, recently returned from Japan where he was part of a delegation celebrating 25 years of economic development initiatives between West Virginia and the Japanese people. Ford was the only Ohio Valley representative in the delegation. Article Photos Former Gov. Gaston Caperton, left, BDC Director Pat Ford and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin are pictured at Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple, during a stop in Kyoto in early May. The three were part of a delegation to Japan to celebrate the economic relationship the nation has with West Virginia. — Contributed “They asked me out of the blue if I would like to go on the trade mission,” he said, noting a phone call he received in early May from West Virginia Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette. Knowing it was a rare opportunity, Ford agreed, joining the group for events in Nagoya, Yokohama and Tokyo from May 13 to May 23. The relationship between Japan and West Virginia actually starts in the Ohio Valley with the agreement which brought Wheeling-Nisshin to Follansbee 25 years ago. That same year, West Virginia state development officials opened an office in Nagoya, which Ford described as the industrial center of Japan. Since then, Japanese companies have made $2.05 billion in investments in the state, creating 3,272 jobs. In addition to Wheeling-Nisshin, Japanese companies such as NGK Spark Plugs, Diamond Electric, Green Metals, Okuno International, Nippon Thermostat, Kureha PGA, Hino Motors and Toyota have located to the Mountain State. “Every one of these businesses, except two, have expanded beyond their initial investment,” Ford noted. “We have a relationship with Japan that clearly has bore much success.” Among those on the trip were Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Burdette and former Gov. Gaston Caperton, under whose time in office the work between West Virginia and Japanese companies began. Ford said Japanese companies look at the type of relationship they have with a group more than the amount of money an investment might take when making a decision, and those continuing relationships have been a great asset to the state. “It was very fluid, and very seamless in every one of our meetings,” he said. During their time in Nagoya, the delegation met with more than 100 businesses to discuss possible opportunities in West Virginia, some of which already are here. Among those Ford was able to speak to was Masahiro Sasaki, the director and managing executive officer of Nisshin Steel. In Tokyo, a number of confidential meetings had been established with dozens of other businesses with an interest in locating here. The group also attended the Japanese Society of Automotive Engineers trade show, which is the largest automotive trade show in Japan. “A lot of people don't realize how many companies are in the automotive industries in Japan,” he said, explaining West Virginia wasn't the only U.S. state represented, with delegations from North Carolina and Indiana also in attendance. “We're not the only ones who play this game. Economic development is quite competitive.” Ford explained West Virginia is in a prime spot for development opportunities, as it is located within one day's drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population, as well as one-third of Canada's population. “When you go abroad, you quickly realize we are still one of the strongest markets in the world,” Ford said, explaining other countries tend to look at the U.S. economy better than we do. In the last few years, Ford also has traveled to Germany, Italy, France and England to assist with attracting businesses to West Virginia. It was such a trip, for example, which brought Pietro Fiorentini to the area with plans to build in the Three Springs Business Park.