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Idaho Firms See A Shrinking World State’s Goods Increasingly In Demand In Asian Countries

Associated Press

When John Rueb visited China 15 years ago, one of the first things he noticed were the shoes.

Cheap rubber. Canvas. Today, if you glance down at the 15 million pairs of feet walking the streets of Shanghai, you’ll see lots of leather. And that means big bucks for Rueb, whose Boise-based company now ships 5,000 Idaho cowhides a week to China and other parts of Asia.

“As economies improve, one of the first consumer demands is for shoes,” said Rueb, a managing partner of Southwest Hide Co.

Also in demand are Micron computers, Hewlett-Packard printers, Simplot french fries and Boise-made Ponderosa paint. Asia’s rapid development over the past decade has helped push Idaho into the global marketplace. In the past 10 years, the number of Idaho companies exporting goods abroad has increased from 126 to nearly 1,000.

Idaho was among the top three nationwide in export growth during 1995. More Idaho companies, both large and small, now depend on new markets in the Pacific Rim to expand their businesses.

“China is probably responsible for 20 percent of our business, and it’s definitely the fastest growing market,” Rueb said.

Nearly 20 percent of all the world’s construction cranes are operating in China as the nation of 1.2 billion attempts to fast-forward into the global economy.

Most Chinese wearing loafers of Idaho cowhide and gobbling Simplot fries at McDonald’s probably never have heard of Idaho. But with each imported product they buy, Idaho’s economy expands.

Export sales now account for 13 percent of the gross state product and have created an estimated 50,000 new jobs. Idaho is part of a major shift in the way the world does business. The World Bank estimates that the Chinese economy is about 40 percent as large as that of the United States. But if China continues to grow at current rates, 7 to 10 percent a year, the country’s gross domestic product will rank No. 2 by 2020.

Idaho’s top six export markets include Japan, Singapore and Taiwan. But China, which holds 20 percent of the world’s population, is catching up fast. What’s happening in China is a measure of where the global marketplace is headed.

Shanghai has 4,303 foreign joint-venture projects in the works, representing $12 billion in investments. As China prepared to reclaim Hong Kong, some people speculated that Shanghai’s economy will grow to rival Hong Kong’s.

Just four years ago, Idaho had little trade with China. Last year, Simplot and other Idaho companies did $40 million worth of trade with the Communist country.

Idaho exports to Singapore increased by 40 percent from 1994 to 1995. Idaho companies sold $206 million worth of goods, from furniture to machinery. Overall, Idaho’s No. 1 export partner is Japan, which bought $250 million worth of goods in 1995.

“As these countries develop, more people are getting focused on trade with Asia,” said Gary Whitwell, director of the Asia trade division for the Idaho Department of Commerce. “Idaho businesses are becoming more aware of how small the world is.”

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