- Associated Press - Monday, June 22, 2015

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Jesse Stricker was wowed from the moment he stepped off an airplane in Milan, Italy. A limousine was waiting to carry him to a luxury hotel. Then it was on to a formal restaurant, where Stricker found himself seated at a table with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, sipping fine wine and sampling fabulous food.

Those first impressions set the tone for a weeklong journey through Italy, Germany and Spain as a delegate on a March trade mission led by Nixon. Taxpayers footed most of the $11,500 cost for Stricker’s experience, thanks to several federal and state programs.

Stricker, 65, is the owner of Intek Corp., a Union, Missouri, manufacturer that employs about 15 people to produce infrared heating products. He is one of hundreds of business leaders who have joined - or will soon be going with - governors on more than 80 foreign trade trips taken to 30 countries since 2014, according to a nationwide analysis of governors’ travels by The Associated Press.

Nixon has taken three trips during that time, including one last week to the Paris Air Show and one last year to Canada. His costs were covered by the Hawthorn Foundation, a business-funded nonprofit group.

Nixon says the trips ultimately are good for the state, “whether it’s in the trade agreements that we’ve done or the relations that we build or just also thanking organizations which have invested significant money” in Missouri.

Economists say the benefits of the trips are uncertain, because it’s hard to know whether certain business deals would have occurred had a governor not gone abroad.

States often work with the U.S. International Trade Administration to customize the itinerary for business executives, who typically split off from a governor’s agenda for their own meetings with prospective foreign partners. Businesses pay extra for the federal agency to research their company and find suitable matches.

“It’s kind of like an industrial dating service,” said Stricker, who participated in several business meetings arranged through the service.

Stricker struck no immediate deals in Italy or Spain. But one German company agreed to buy nearly $1,500 of infrared heaters, leaving Stricker hopeful of more sales in the future.

So far, that hasn’t offset Stricker’s costs for the trip, not even when reduced by the public subsidies he received. Of his $11,500 in costs, more than $3,600 was reimbursed by a Missouri Department of Economic Development program that aids small businesses, and Intek got nearly $4,900 from a federally funded grant program for businesses with declining sales or employment.

Stricker figures he can break even if the trip eventually leads to just a few more sales.

“No matter what, it was a good experience, and well worth the time invested,” he said.

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