Let’s be clear: Maurizio Forte is the trade commissioner and executive director for the USA of the Italian Trade Agency.
But what he said in his opening remarks of a breakfast with a select audience of New Jersey business executives in Newark last week could easily be construed as an economic development pitch for the Garden State.
“This is one of the perfect landing areas for Italian companies who want to do business (in the U.S.),” he said. “It’s a fantastic place. They need to be in a place where there are big consumption areas, whether it’s New York or Washington or Boston or Philadelphia, so this is perfect.
Italian companies, he said, are looking for places that are “conveniently located for international connections, have reasonable costs, good professionals and logistics and supply chain for all the things that they do.
“The perfect place in the world doesn’t exist, but there are some places that are better than others and I think New Jersey is one of those places for Italian companies. It’s one of the best areas in the U.S. for us.”
New Jersey already has a strong connection with Italian companies, importing $6.6 billion worth of goods. The total is not only higher than any other state in the nation — it represents 17 percent of Italy’s total exports.
Last week’s event at the Newark Club, co-sponsored by the Morristown-based law firm of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter and Choose New Jersey, was about growing that partnership.
“We are looking to expand their presence in the state,” said Margie Piliere, the chief economic development officer at Choose New Jersey. “It’s natural to partner with them because we can provide a comfortable area with similar culture.”
And surprisingly similar industries.
Forte mentioned Italy’s strong presence in the pharmaceuticals, life science, agriculture, aerospace, defense, small manufacturing, fashion, agriculture, furniture and, of course, food industries as a reason to do even more business in the state.
Eric Perkins, a partner at McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter and a member of the International Trade Committee of Choose New Jersey, acknowledges trading with Europe has been difficult in recent years, specifically with the collapse of the Greek economy, the refugee crisis and a rise in terrorism.
But he feels things are headed back in the right direction, especially in Italy.
“The economic climate in Europe has been very difficult in recent years, so it’s been harder to get American companies that aren’t already there and invested to get interested in setting up shop,” he said. “But the current government, with Prime Minister (Matteo) Renzi, has been very aggressive in changing that climate, especially in Italy.
“There have been changes in the laws over there that are starting to make it once again attractive for American companies to want to go over there again. There are a lot of different reasons why it could work very nicely.”
Maurizio Forte, the trade commissioner and executive director for the USA of the Italian Trade Agency, said increasing business will help with the social issues.
“In this very difficult period we have to live, sometimes we say a better peacekeeper is not the army and weapons, but trade and economic relations,” he said. “When people trade, when people do good business, and when people know each other and shake their hands, they usually don’t shoot each other because you actually wish all the best for your partner.
“The more we are integrated, the more we do fair business together. The more we invest, the more our families and our people travel and settle down in certain areas, the more we are closer and have better understanding, the more peaceful we will be. I hope this is a new start to increase our relationships and our opportunities; I think this is a good moment to do that.”
Forte, who has been working out of the Italian Trade Agency’s New York City office for less than a year, was making one of his first visits across the river. After the breakfast, Choose New Jersey took him and other ITA officials on a tour of four Italian companies already doing business in the state.
“I know we have so many Italian companies here, I want to improve the relations, especially in terms of investments,” he said.
Forte, who held a similar position in Moscow and Shanghai before coming to New York, said he understands the importance of how the areas around major international cities are to growth.
And he not only sees New Jersey as a way to boost Italy’s presence in the Northeast, but all over the country.
“When we talk with Italian companies about the United States, we try to give them the whole picture of this entire country,” he said. “Everybody knows the East Coast and Florida and California and the West Coast, (but) there is a big missing part in the middle of the country where Italian companies are not performing and not working.”
Forte said New Jersey’s culture makes it easier for Italian companies to set up shop in New Jersey and expand to the Midwest, rather than trying to start in the Midwest.
“Our companies have to start from some area where there is a strong presence of Italian community and Italian businesses,” he said. “They not only can find easier conditions to do business, but they can find companies like lawyers or consultants or marketing, advertising or communications that can better understand what is made in Italy.”
This all makes sense to Eric Perkins, a partner at McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter and a member of the International Trade Committee of Choose New Jersey, who has spent years helping companies in Italy and New Jersey.
“This is the right place, the obvious place to set up businesses because it is the door to the rest of the country,” he said. “We have all that New York has to offer, but we also have the room to grow.
“New Jersey has a very diverse economy and community because it also has been the threshold for immigrants, whether it was from Ellis Island or the like. For as many people who went to New York, many more settled in Hoboken and Jersey City and used that to expand westward.”
Perkins also doesn’t shy away from the New York City connection. In fact, instead of feeling it may take companies away from New Jersey, he knows from experience that it can help bring companies in.
“The Italian connection is huge,” he said. “We explain to the Italian companies that you can have your representational office in New York, but look at your taxes and what is it going to cost you in square footage in New York.
“We tell them, ‘You’re going to want to bring in personnel, you’re going to want to open a back office — don’t do it in New York. Bring them to New Jersey. With the roads, the airports, the schools, the quality of life, in terms of getting your goods and products out of New Jersey to the rest of the country becomes that much easier.’
“The reality is, if they want to go to the rest of the country, they have to cross over a river, we don’t.”
Forte said he was eager to get to work in New Jersey.
“After meeting with Choose New Jersey and Eric, we realized there is very big room for expanding the collaboration between Italy and New Jersey,” he said. “The trade already is the best one of the 50 states, but it is not enough.”
And not enough going both ways.
Forte said he is just as interested in helping New Jersey companies do business in Italy.
“We would really welcome New Jersey investment in Italy,” he said. “We have some great companies that are waiting for investors, could be merger and acquisition, could be buying a company. We have small companies that are easy to manage with a good tradition and very well introduced in the international market.”
Piliere is all for that.
She said Choose New Jersey is eager to build all aspects of the relationship — and that its initial meetings dealt with food and fashion, but have grown to include much more.
“It’s a tradeoff for Choose to introduce companies to them because we have companies that want to do business in New Jersey and they have businesses that they are working with in Italy looking to establish a footprint in New Jersey,” she said.
“The cross-pollination is the way to go because it creates relationships and it creates trade and you need trade balance, you need it to go both ways.”
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On Twitter: @tombergeron5