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Behlen ‘hopeful’ trade deal sorted out

Hopeful would be the right word to describe Phil Raimondo’s mindset in looking toward the future of the Trans-Pacific Partnership the United States withdrew from just days into President Donald Trump’s new administration.

“Our hope is that President Trump’s goal (in pulling out of the trade deal) is to put the U.S. in a better negotiating position,” said Raimondo, president and chief executive officer of Behlen Mfg. Co.

“I hope he negotiates a deal more favorable and fairer to U.S. workers and businesses, something we all can support.”

The TPP is a trade agreement between the U.S., Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. The president signed an order Jan. 23 withdrawing the U.S. from the deal.

The trade agreement, when it included the United States, was signed by 12 countries representing about 40 percent of the world’s economic output. The loss of the U.S. economic output would leave a gaping hole in the trade pact.

The pact aimed to deepen economic ties between the nations, slashing tariffs and fostering trade to boost growth. Members also hoped to foster a closer relationship on economic policies and regulation.

The agreement was designed so it could eventually create a new single market, something like that of the European Union.

The deal could be good for Behlen export sales.

If the president’s withdrawal is aimed at addressing the shortcomings of the trade deal and tilt it more favorably toward the U.S., that would be great, Raimondo said.

A shift toward more “protectionist” trade policies, however, would make Behlen less competitive with other countries over the long term and be bad for the company, he said.

“It’s a fine line,” said Raimondo, who was encouraged by Trump’s cordial recent sit-down visit at the White House with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The longtime Columbus manufacturer felt the sting of declining exports in 2016. Behlen’s export orders shrank from 10 percent of the company’s grain bin sales two years ago to 4 percent in 2016.

The Behlen exec has seen glimmers of improvement in export sales in the last few months. There has been an uptick in the company’s export activity with smaller capital projects in Mexico and Ukraine.

Mexico is typically the top foreign customer for Behlen’s products.

“We’ve started to see some signs of life,” said Raimondo, noting that at any given time during the year export sales account for 40 to 60 jobs at the Columbus plant. “It would be real nice if we get export sales of 7 or 8 percent this year.”

Overall, Behlen recorded sales of $176 million during 2016.

“It was a healthy year,” said Raimondo while noting the sales were below record revenues of $200 to $210 million in 2007 and 2008 before the Great Recession sent sales spiraling into a multiyear slump.

The TPP was part of the Obama administration’s strategy to boost American economic clout in Southeast Asia and stem creeping Chinese influence in the region. China is not a party of the trade deal.

If the U.S. is not a partner in the trade deal, Raimondo said, China would be in a much stronger position to negotiate trade policies in that part of the world.

“We still have a lot of friends in China, but the U.S. would be a much better leader on trade in those markets,” he said.

Behlen has about 650 employees at its Columbus plant throughout the winter, with the figure swelling to 725 to 750 during the summer months. Companywide, which includes plants in McGregor, Texas, Baker City, Oregon and Omaha, Behlen employs about 940 workers.

Today, the company consists of three diverse business units, including the Building Group (Behlen and Behlen China), Behlen Country (the nation’s leading manufacturer of livestock equipment) and International and Diversified Products (grain systems, strip-joining presses and custom fabrication).

The company is a leading manufacturer of farm and ranch equipment and building systems for a range of applications, including agriculture, commercial and government. Behlen’s products include commercial grain systems, metal-stitching presses and custom metal fabrication.

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