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Key businesses and groups skip Minnesota governor's trade mission

Gov. Mark Dayton begins his first international trade mission this weekend in Japan and South Korea without some of Minnesota's largest businesses or the state's two business groups.

Dayton and other members of his administration are touting the trip as a way to increase Minnesota exports to Asia and boost international investment in Minnesota.

The governor is scheduled to speak in Japan this weekend. On Sunday, a delegation of business leaders, trade groups and academics will join Dayton for his trade mission to South Korea.

But the absence of big names in Minnesota business is notable. The large companies that are not traveling with the governor to South Korea include Polaris, Delta Air Lines, Hormel, Best Buy and Cargill. Each participated in at least one of former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's trade missions.

The South Korea trade mission includes 24 people, a much smaller group than trade missions launched by Pawlenty. Although 3M is not sending a representative, it is a sponsor of the South Korea trip.

The state's two largest business groups, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership, aren't on the trip to South Korea. The political arms of those groups worked to defeat Dayton in the race for governor. But they argue politics has nothing to do with their absence.

The nine-day mission is aimed at helping businesses put Minnesotans to work.

"My first priority is to help them and open doors and be part of making presentations and pitches to expand their business opportunities," Dayton said. "That's my No. 1 priority and I'm hopeful that we'll come back for some genuine and real results that will mean more jobs for more people in Minnesota."

Some of the business leaders who will travel with the governor represent well-known companies in Minnesota, among them Medtronic and Boston Scientific. Others are from smaller firms, like Minneapolis-based Rani Engineering.

Rani Engineering CEO Susan Rani, who moved to Minnesota from South Korea 40 years ago, hopes the trip will also help her develop meaningful business contacts.

"We believe that there are opportunities for small business, American small business or American business, period, who can then provide a niche service that the South Koreans might not be providing at this time," she said. "They may be searching for partners, suppliers and professional service organizations that have connections to other suppliers."

During his two terms in office, Pawlenty went on seven trade missions. Only his trips to Canada and Europe had fewer people than Dayton's trip.

Bill Blazar, senior vice president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said his organization directs businesses that aim to expand internationally to the state Trade Office. But he said the chamber is primarily focused on retaining Minnesota businesses.

"We just don't have the time or the resources to spend wandering around the country trying to find matches for Minnesota businesses," Blazar said. "It's not that that's unproductive. It's just not our charge. There are other organizations that have that task."

Minnesota Business Partnership executive director Charlie Weaver said he couldn't work the trip into his schedule but expects to travel with Dayton on future trade missions.

Katie Clark, who runs the Minnesota Trade Office, said she would have liked to see more businesses and business groups on the trip. But she said Dayton's trade missions probably will never be as large as Pawlenty's 2005 trade mission to China. More than 175 people were on that trip.

"This administration is thinking about trade missions in a little bit different way than some of the past administrations," she said.

Clark said the state government shutdown hampered their recruiting efforts. She also said the focus of the mission will be dedicated to achieving results for those who are on the mission.

"We're trying to have a more targeted delegation to make sure that they are receiving business-to-business connections and that there will be tangible results that come out of this mission," Clark said.

Clark wouldn't guarantee any immediate success from the trade mission but noted that Minnesota exports have routinely increased to countries that were targeted for trade missions. She said another aim of the mission is to encourage Korean businesses to expand in Minnesota.

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