An economic draw: All the nice people

Lorne Smith cites all the usual reasons for bringing his office to Reno — attractive tax climate, free-trade zone, reasonable government regulation, good access to markets through the western United States and the rest of the world.

But really, Smith says, he decided to come to Reno because the people are just so darned nice.

A-One Group Holdings Ltd., where Smith works as director of business development, offers a portfolio of services for companies that want to do business in China.

It helps American companies find manufacturing partners in China. It audits the quality and social accountability of Chinese partners. It consults with American companies that want to sell to Asian consumers.

Smith, a New Hampshire native who has worked in Asia for 15 years, last year began scouting opportunities for A-One Group Holdings to open an office in the United States. A big motivation for Smith and his wife: Finding a healthier environment than China’s Guangdong province for their infant daughter.

While Reno initially wasn’t part of his search, a friend — David Benjamin, an executive with Reno-based EasyKeeper Herd Management — encouraged Smith to take a look at Reno.

That, in turn, led to an invitation to speak in early December to 1 Million Cups, the weekly event that draws entrepreneurs and investors together at Swill Coffee & Wine in Reno. While he was in town, Smith decided to pack in a busy five days of meetings with business people in Reno and Sparks.

“Everyone single one of those people was genuinely nice,” he says.

So nice, in fact, that Smith and his partner back in China initially didn’t quite know what to make of it.

But convinced that the nice people were sincere, and convinced that northern Nevada provided the right access and the right place to grow the American presence of A-One Group Holdings, Smith and his family moved into a rented home in late January. Within days, he set up shop temporarily at downtown’s Reno Collective.

Now he’s making the sales calls that will determine the company’s future in northern Nevada.

The biggest part of A-One Group’s revenues, he says, are generated by manufacturing deals that are focused on metals castings, plastic injection molding, printed circuit boards and complex cable harnesses. Those deals cover a wide range of options — everything from making introductions to transactions in which A-One Group takes a financial interest in a Chinese factory.

A growing piece of the business is delivery of audits of manufacturing capabilities or quality control processes.

Audits of social accountability — whether an Asian plant meets environmental standards or treats its workers fairly, for instance — are particularly important.

“That’s becoming a big issue for people,” says Smith. “Generally, people assume the best, and that’s not always the right thing to do.”

The company also sees growth in consulting with American companies that want to open the Chinese market.

“Chinese consumers like American goods,” Smith says. “We’re trying to keep this a two-way street.”

It’s unlikely that A-One Group Holdings would employ more than a handful of people in northern Nevada, he says, but it would provide important support for the international growth of other companies.

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