From pet carriers to pottery to professors, trade between China and North Texas has flourished in the past decade.
And with American Airlines launching non-stop service from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to Shanghai and Hong Kong today, local businesses are hoping it opens up more opportunities to import and export goods and services between the two regions.
“We intend for Fort Worth’s international presence to grow, and China will be a big piece of that,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who sits on the DFW Airport Board. “They are definitely an emerging consumer where we’re shipping goods out and bringing goods into our region.”
Not only will the direct daily flights take Fort Worth businesses to Asia, but they will also make it easier for Chinese executives to come to North Texas and learn that the region is about more than just cowboys and J.R. Ewing.
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“We encourage our vendors to visit us here and I think [the direct flight] will make that easier,” said Alex Smith, chief executive officer at Fort Worth-based Pier 1 Imports, which gets more than half of the products sold in its stores from China.
DFW Airport had hoped to land direct flights to Shanghai in 2006, but American withdrew its application for the route when it was unable to negotiate a contract amendment with its pilots union to provide for the 16-hour plus flight.
“We had lobbied long and hard collectively as a region and were very disappointed, but now we’re very excited,” said Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce president Bill Thornton. “Our leadership fully recognizes the opportunities in China and we’re going to take advantage of them.”
For Clay Odom, China has increasingly become a major part of his business, Trixie Pet Products, as he stocks his Arlington warehouse with the latest dog houses and cat scratching posts.
In the early 2000s, Odom said he started seeing more manufacturers moving production to factories in China. Now he travels to China three or four times a year.
“I work with the factories that manufacture pet products and sometimes I’ll meet my U.S. clients in China at the factories so they can conduct quality inspections,” Odom said.
He is already planning to book a direct flight to Shanghai for his fall trip. Odom said he expects the flight will provide the same business advantages he experienced when Qantas launched non-stop flights to Sydney from DFW.
“The Qantas flight is so much easier because you don’t have to get caught up in L.A. traffic going through customs,” Odom said.
For local export-and-import businesses like Odom’s, China is a critical market, dotted with manufacturing facilities.
Gal Jumaoas, president of the Greater Dallas Asian American Chamber of Commerce, said several of its small-business members travel to mainland China and Hong Kong each month to establish business connections for Dallas. Jumaoas said the chamber has already facilitated $100 million in investments from China to the city of Dallas and expects those numbers to increase, particularly in the retail and export business.
“Our members go to China to look for manufacturing and supplies,” Jumaoas said. “This flight is really exciting for our members and our community here in North Texas.”
Walk in to any Pier 1 Imports store and you’ll find furniture, vases, dishes and home decor that have come from China.
“China is an enormous market for us and we’ve been going to Hong Kong for 52 years,” Smith said. “When you talk to some of the old guys who are retired [buyers for Pier 1], they talk about trains and automobiles for days and at one point they had to stop off in Hawaii on the way.”
Buyers often left the home office in Fort Worth for two months at a time to find unique home goods to sell at Pier 1 stores in the U.S. They would visit several countries in Asia before heading back. Now, Smith said, trips are much shorter and buyers can go to a specific city for business without having to add on other destinations simply because of the length of time it takes to get to Asia.
Smith said he thought it would be “such a cool thing” to be on the inaugural American flight to Hong Kong and decided to head to the city with Pier 1’s chief merchant on a short trip.
“We are having all-day meetings with our principal buying agents leaving on Wednesday and coming back on Sunday,” Smith said. “I would have never done that before.”
Hillwood executive Steve Boecking said the ease of transportation between Asia and North Texas simplifies his job of recruiting businesses to the Alliance industrial development.
“These direct flights make it much easier for companies like Hillwood to get to China so we can attract these people. But then it also on the reverse helps those Chinese companies to get to DFW,” Boecking said.
“If we can fly direct to Shanghai, I don’t have to make that stop in Tokyo and I’m much fresher and rested and ready to go to work once I hit the ground,” Boecking said. “It’s expensive to go to Asia, so you don’t want to get there and then spend the first 8 hours sleeping in your hotel.”
Professors from the University of Texas at Arlington’s business school have been traveling to China to teach executive MBA classes for over a decade. David Mack, assistant dean at the business school, has been there 31 times to teach 25 different classes in the past 11 years.
“In the beginning, it was the Wild West,” Mack said about conducting business in China. “You were going to be embraced if you threw money around and a lot of businesses were doing exactly that. Now it’s evolved. China is taking more control of that process.”
To date, UTA has more than 2,000 graduates that have completed its China MBA program and about 300 students per year enrolled in the classes. Rachel Croson, the business school dean, said the direct flights will make it easier for faculty to go to China and for Chinese state-owned businesses to send their executives to UTA.
“When the students come here, they bring their families,” Croson said, adding that about 40 Chinese executives come to UTA to study for a year. “It will make our program more attractive.”
And for the first time, UTA will be taking students from its executive MBA program in downtown Fort Worth to Hong Kong as part of a two-week Asia trip. Mack, who is leading the trip, said he has skipped Hong Kong in the past because he didn’t want to lose a student or luggage by adding in the extra connection.
“We are going to fly into Shanghai and fly back from Hong Kong and it’s just because of the direct flight,” Mack said.