U.S. 'Ham Capital' Proves Chinese Investment Can Be a Good Thing

  • China owner has overseen expansion in U.S. jobs since takeover
  • Townspeople can ‘wave our flags’ or accept globalization

Pig decorations sit on display inside the Christmas Store in Smithfield, Virginia.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

When Chinese suitors took over the pork producer in Smithfield, Virginia, it sent tremors through the tiny town that calls itself the Ham Capital of the World.

Three years on, residents and union leaders who represent workers at Smithfield Foods Inc. say the initial fears about the buyer from a Communist-ruled nation proved unfounded. The happy marriage so far belies the rhetoric on the U.S. presidential campaign trail that depicts China as an untrustworthy business partner, and serves as an example of Chinese investment that can benefit both countries.

At the time, the $4.7 billion acquisition of Smithfield Foods in 2013 by Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. marked the biggest purchase of an American firm by a Chinese company. It was also controversial. U.S. senators expressed concern the deal would jeopardize the security of America’s food supply, and residents of the town of 8,300 people worried Shuanghui would cut jobs or move the company from Smithfield, where it was founded in 1936.

A bronze statue of George Washington in Smithfield.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Instead, the U.S. workforce under the Chinese owners now known as WH Group Ltd. has expanded by more than 1,000 people, to almost 39,000, and rather than cutting back investment, capital spending by the Chinese-owned unit has climbed -- rising 24 percent last year, to $313 million.

"This is a very conservative American community and people were aghast that the Chinese had bought their company," said John Edwards, the editor and publisher of the Smithfield Times, a local newspaper. "That’s pretty much gone away."

The pattern in Smithfield offers something of a parallel with Japanese investment decades ago that initially stoked opposition before becoming accepted -- a theme captured in the 1980s Michael Keaton-Ron Howard movie "Gung Ho."

From hotels to movie studios, it’s now Chinese companies that are snapping up assets in the U.S. at a record pace. This year, Chinese firms are on track to spend $50.8 billion on U.S. acquisitions, according to data compiled by Bloomberg spanning completed, proposed or pending deals. That compares with the $34.8 billion total last year.

The investments add a new layer of potential tensions to a bilateral economic relationship characterized by the world’s largest trade imbalance, with China exporting more than $365 billion worth of goods to the U.S. in excess of what it bought in American imports, according to U.S. government data.

Those Chinese-made goods help fill Wal-Mart stores and Amazon.com’s website with inexpensive products for American households that have seen scant income gains. Yet the imbalance also reflects competitive pressures that have fueled charges about unfair competition -- now heard loudest on the campaign trail.

Campaign Rhetoric

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said in May "we can’t continue to allow China to rape our country." His Democratic rival, and current front-runner, Hillary Clinton has said the next president “has to understand the games Beijing plays and be prepared to stop it.”

Mirroring what happened with Japan, China is now drawing attention for its investments, which have included Anbang Insurance Group Co.’s $1.95 billion purchase of the iconic Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. China’s Commerce Ministry anticipates that outbound investment will exceed that of foreign direct investment this year.

Chinese-affiliated companies can be found in more than three-quarters of U.S. congressional districts, according to the Rhodium Group LLC, a New York economic-research firm that specializes in China. Major multi-billion dollar projects are dotted around the country, including Yuhuang Chemical’s $1.85 billion methanol plant in Louisiana and Tranlin Paper’s $2 billion facility in Virginia.

Because deals by Chinese companies can often involve state-owned enterprises, they can raise concerns on everything from intellectual-property protection to national security. Before the Smithfield acquisition, opponents of the deal raised espionage concerns, noting that Smithfield, Virginia, is in a military-intensive region -- not far from the U.S. Navy base in Norfolk that bills itself as the world’s largest.

The Obama administration has blocked some purchases of U.S.-based assets. Europeans have shared U.S. sentiment that China doesn’t offer the same access for investment in its home market.

‘One-Way Street’

Foreign investment between China and the U.S. remains largely a one-way street, said David Dollar, a senior follow at the Brookings Institution and the U.S. Treasury’s former economic emissary to China.

"China itself remains quite closed to inward investment. They’ve opened some manufacturing sectors, but they’re very closed in a lot of sectors that are important to the U.S.," Dollar said in an interview. "The next president will have to take a hard look at this."

At the same time, Chinese firms are generating some jobs in the U.S., adding about 13,000 employees to their payrolls in 2015, up 12 percent from 2014, according to a Report by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and Rhodium. About 90,000 Americans are now employed by Chinese affiliated U.S. companies, a threefold increase in three years.

Thousands of those are at Smithfield Foods, founded in 1936 by Joseph Luter and his son in the former port town of the same name along the banks of the Pagan River in southeastern Virginia. While the business rose to become the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer within five decades, by 2008 it was mired in a bitter dispute with workers over attempts to unionize a hog-slaughtering plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina.

Before the Chinese acquisition, investors expressed disappointment in the company’s stock performance, which trailed competitors such as Hormel Foods Corp. and Tyson Foods Inc. One shareholder, Continental Grain Co., suggested that the company’s packaged meats, international operations and livestock businesses be broken up.

Wary of the impact on workers, the union supported the Chinese takeover, and officials say collective bargaining negotiations have gone smoothly since.

Union Support

"Meet the new boss, same as the old boss," said Mark Lauritsen, director of packing and processing at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union in Washington, who has worked on Smithfield labor talks in the past. "As far as the worker on the shop floor goes, there’s been no change at all."

Shuanghui promised not to close any Smithfield facilities, lay off employees or move the company’s headquarters. For Shuanghui, the deal was an opportunity to satisfy growing demand by consumers for pork in China, already the world’s largest market for the meat.

Main St. in Smithfield.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

It was a case of a Chinese enterprise with state-owned roots diving into small-town America. On Main Street, U.S. flags hang outside colorful Queen Anne-style homes, many of which have been converted into shops geared toward tourists. A bronze personification of the first president and home-state hero, George Washington, sits on a park bench.

Samples of "genuine Smithfield ham," which are defined by strict guidelines set by Virginia law, can be bought at the "Taste of Smithfield," along with bacon-flavored soda. At the Smithfield Inn, also owned by the firm, the menu features local dishes such as pork and apples.

Jim Abicht

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Smithfield Foods remains an American company that operates completely independently from WH Group -- which is a publicly listed company -- on a day-to-day basis, said Kathleen Kirkham, director of corporate communications at Smithfield Foods. WH Group executives in China weren’t available to discuss the Smithfield Foods investment.

Local business people are getting used to the idea of playing hosts to a Chinese-owned company. Jim Abicht has been leasing space for the Christmas Store on Main Street from Smithfield Foods for about 25 years. He hasn’t noticed any change in his relationship with the firm under the new ownership.

"We can sit out on the street and wave our flags," said Abicht, whose store sells bacon-shaped Christmas ornaments among other porcine-inspired decorations. "Or we can accept that we live in a global economy."

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