As someone who was a key part of the planning, Wes Mathews understands why Germany, Israel and India were the first three countries New Jersey officials emphasized in their efforts to expand their international economic development ties to the state.
He also knows where the state likely will look next: Central and South America and East Asia.
Mathews, who created and led the state’s first Office of International Trade at the New Jersey Economic Development Authority from March 2018 to October 2019, when Gov. Phil Murphy had trade missions to each of those nations, returns to the state next month as CEO of Choose New Jersey.
A career State Department official who has served in Washington and around the world — he was on loan to the EDA — Mathews said he’s eager to pick up where he left off.
“If you look at some of the goals that I’m starting to think about as I talk to our team at Choose and others, we definitely want to expand our international outreach,” he said. “I think we definitely want to take a close look at Central and South America and see what the opportunities are. It makes absolute sense when you look at where we’ve been in the last few years — and you look at who our top trading partners are and how we can leverage that into greater opportunity. That’s why we went to Germany, India, Israel.
“When you look at what’s next, East Asia — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan — all have sizable populations in New Jersey, so those could be opportunities that are ripe for us, too.”
Speaking from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in his first comments since being named earlier this month as the successor to Jose Lozano at Choose New Jersey, Mathews said following the plan that was established at the beginning of the Murphy administration will have challenges — you know, what with the pandemic.
But Mathews said his time in Saudi Arabia, where he was stationed the past six months, showed him the process has slowed, but not stopped.
“I don’t think competitive federalism took much of a break during the pandemic, at least what we’ve seen — trade missions from states come through our embassies and consulates in various countries,” he said. “So, I would like to try to expand that outreach as much as possible.”
Mathews acknowledges that many of these opportunities take a lot of lead time to develop and a lot of legwork — he said he’s seen that firsthand.
“I don’t know if we have the bandwidth to cover that right away, but we’ll cultivate those relationships and start looking at those and try to build our pipeline to see how we can make inroads there later,” he said.
It’s here where his prior experiences really come into play, Mathews said. And not just as a diplomat, but as someone who has worked in state government in New Jersey.
“When I was at the EDA, we spent a lot of time cultivating relationships at various consulates,” he said. “We let them know, 1) this state government has an international office; 2) we work very closely with the business attraction entity Choose New Jersey; and 3) we want to look at seeing what we can do with your businesses.
“There’s no state capital in America that’s closer to so many more foreign missions than Trenton, and Newark is even closer, so I’m looking forward to getting back out there.”
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Mathews, of course, knows how to talk the talk.
“Being a being a diplomat does kind of ease the level of conversation when you’re speaking to a fellow diplomat from a foreign country,” he said.
These efforts don’t necessarily start in Central and South America and the East Asia. Expanding the relationships that have started in Germany, Israel and India is just as important, he said.
“I think what we have to do, to start, is look at where we have a footprint,” he said. “Over the last few years, Choose was extremely successful in planting the flag and working very closely with partners in India, Germany and Israel. We can expand those opportunities.
“India’s such a huge country, not just in terms of population, but in terms of sectors and industries and everything they’ve got going on. And, with the population in New Jersey, it just makes absolute sense that we should be spending more time there.”
The same goes for Europe, he said.
“We have an office that’s focused on Germany and Switzerland,” he said. “Those are two of our Top 10 trading partners, primarily on the pharma side. But, regardless of sector, we should see what we can continue to cultivate from those investments that we made over the last four years. And where else can we go.
“Can the office in Germany also cover France or the U.K., other top trading partners that we weren’t able to spend a lot of time on in the last four years? I want to leverage our assets that we have on the ground currently, and then cultivate those while looking for greater opportunities.”