Stefan Hard / Staff Photo
Anita Chan, director of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in New York City, listens Tuesday to Kathy Finck of New England Culinary Institute and Jim Sault of Porter Music Box Co. during a luncheon at NECI’s Chef’s Table restaurant in Montpelier.
MONTPELIER — A high-ranking trade official from Hong Kong made her first visit to Vermont on Tuesday, meeting business people eager to make inroads into what has become a key market for Green Mountain manufacturers.
Hong Kong has become the third-largest selling destination for Vermont companies, receiving nearly $255 million in exports in 2012, behind only Canada and mainland China. It’s also one of the fastest-growing markets, with exports surging sixfold over the past decade.
Anita Chan, director of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in New York, hosted a lunch Tuesday with the Vermont Chamber of Commerce in Montpelier, where about a dozen hopeful Vermont business people went to learn more about how to break in.
Dana Eidsness, director of international business for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said the state has yet to realize the full market potential in Hong Kong, which is a “special administrative region” of China with its own political and legal system.
Electric machinery exports account for the bulk of Vermont’s business in Hong Kong. But Eidsness said there are opportunities for other sectors. “We see some untapped opportunities for our members, for instance in the specialty food and beverage areas, perhaps the educational industry, and wood products and other luxury items,” Eidsness said.
Businesses on hand for the lunch ran the gamut, from a maple syrup producer in Morrisville to a high-end music box manufacturer in Randolph to a tortilla chip and salsa maker in Manchester.
One company sought to offer business-to-business logistics services, and Geotech, a Colorado-based company with offices in Winooski, was looking for new buyers for its environmental cleanup equipment.
Even the location at which the event was held — the Chef’s Table, a training restaurant owned by the New England Culinary Institute — has designs on the market in Hong Kong.
Kathy Finck, vice president of education at NECI, said the school is eager to increase the number of overseas students who now make up about 10 percent of enrollment.
Though its area is only about a 10th the size of Vermont’s, Hong Kong has a population of 7 million and lays claim to one of the top 10 trading economies in the world. With an unemployment rate of only 3.3 percent and per-capita GDP on par with the United States, Chan said, residents of Hong Kong have money to spend.
“We are an affluent economy,” she said. “People have the shopping power to buy luxury items.”
That’s the kind of luxury market that Jim Sault is looking to tap. Sault is general manager of the Porter Music Box Co., where base models start at $9,500. More than 70 percent of Sault’s business already comes from Asia, but he said the bulk of those sales are in Japan and that he’s looking for traction in Hong Kong and China.
John Kingston, chief operating officer at Butternut Mountain Farm in Morrisville, said his company has a solid market base in North America. But he said developing a customer base in Hong Kong and China would improve stability of demand.
“One of our goals is to be diversified in terms of markets,” Kingston said.
Chan said Hong Kong can also serve as a gateway into mainland China, which accounts for nearly three-quarters of the 48 million tourists who flock to Hong Kong annually.
Chan, whose New York City office oversees trade relationships with 31 states, said increasing imports from Vermont benefits the Hong Kong economy.
“On the surface it doesn’t really make sense — why do we want to buy more stuff from you, right?” Chan said.
But she said every transaction with Vermont generates revenues for Hong Kong’s airport and container port as well as the transport companies, importers, law firms and banks that thrive in the territory’s prodigious trade economy.
“Any kind of trade will benefit our economy,” Chan said. “It’s a win-win for Vermont and Hong Kong.”
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