Foreign direct investment is transforming Wisconsin’s economy for the better

This month’s announcement that Thiel Cheese & Ingredients of Hilbert has been acquired by the Irish Dairy Board might have struck some people as a bit odd. Have the Irish run out of dairy farmers or lost their historic knack for making cheese?

Fear not. Cheese-making in Ireland is in tip-top shape, as they might say in Dublin. The purchase of a Wisconsin company by the Irish Dairy Board, a commercial cooperative, represents a strategic investment in a high-quality partner with strong research and innovation tools. For Thiel Cheese and its 66 employees, it means better access to markets in North America and abroad.

It’s the latest example of how foreign direct investment is globalizing Wisconsin’s economy in ways that create jobs, expand supply chains, open the doors to new markets, and provide needed investment dollars.

Foreign direct investment is investment by foreign-owned companies in Wisconsin companies, often for the purpose of cracking into North American markets. In 2010, foreign direct investment in Wisconsin likely topped $16 billion, a figure that rivaled the state’s $19.8 billion in exports.

Exports and foreign direct investments are flip sides of the same coin. They represent Wisconsin’s ability to build, produce, and grow what the world needs – and to attract investment from other markets that understand Wisconsin’s strengths.

A surprising number of Wisconsin companies have foreign ownership, including many in manufacturing, food services, paper, and packaging. According to a recent report to the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation by a special University of Wisconsin task force on foreign direct investment, the leading nations are Canada, Germany, Finland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Brazil, and France, which collectively represent ownership in about 80 companies. The full list would run well into the hundreds of companies, large and small.

Some companies have boasted foreign ownership for decades, such as Kikkoman Foods in Walworth. But others are more recent additions, reflecting trends in currency exchange rates, trade patterns, and more.

Marinette Marine, which is building a new class of combat ships for the U.S. Navy, is owned by Fincantieri, an Italian firm. Other recent examples include Ingeteam, a Spanish company that selected Milwaukee for a wind generator and solar inverter plant, and SEDA, an Italian cup and packaging manufacturer that selected Racine County. Bostik Products, Milwaukee Electric Tool, Talgo, Schwartz Pharma, Packerland Packing Co., and McCain Foods are among other examples.

“Foreign direct investment shouldn’t be looked at as just being about the money,” said Lora Klenke, WEDC’s vice president of International Business Development. “It’s about opportunities for improving supply chains, establishing markets, improving warehousing and distribution, and more. It’s a way for companies to expand and modernize, especially if the funding isn’t available here.”

David Ward, president of NorthStar Economics and co-chairman of the UW System International Economic Development Task Force, said it appears manufacturing and food processing have attracted a “critical mass” of foreign investment – and that northeast Wisconsin is a particular hot spot.

Foreign direct investment helps expand exports from Wisconsin, Ward added. “Why? Because those companies tend to know the global markets better than anyone.”

The UW Task Force was established in 2010 by System President Kevin Reilly and is co-chaired by Ward and Gilles Bousquet, dean of the division of International Studies at UW-Madison. It is exploring how the university’s expertise and contacts can help attract international investment and promote growth in international markets.

There are some risks inherent in foreign direct investment, such as the loss of Wisconsin-based corporate headquarters. But for those who worry about Wisconsin jobs moving overseas, foreign direct investment counters that trend by retaining and creating jobs here.

So, the next time you sample an Irish Cheddar, Ballybrie, or Ardrahan, just imagine: Some of its ingredients may have been made in Wisconsin by people working here.

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