SHEFFIELD, Iowa – It wouldn’t be a country mile off course to say Sukup Manufacturing Co. had a role in Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s appointment as U.S. ambassador to China.
In 1985 when Branstad first met Xi Jinping, who is now president of China, Xi toured Sukup Manufacturing Co. and visited the Steve and Vicki Sukup farm as part of a tour by Chinese officials to learn about Iowa agriculture.
Their paths have crossed a couple times since. The Sukup family was invited to a statehouse dinner during Xi’s visit to Iowa in 2012, and Charles Sukup, president of Sukup Manufacturing Co., attended a 2013 Iowa trade mission to China led by Branstad.
Given China’s largest-in-the-world population of 1.38 billion and Iowa’s status as a world leader in food production, it makes sense to develop a strong relationship.
So it seemed only natural when President Donald Trump tabbed Branstad as ambassador to China, said Steve Sukup, chief financial officer of Sukup Manufacturing Co.
Branstad is “a perfect fit” for the role, said Sukup, whose November 2016 visit to China with Branstad and about 15 others would have included another meeting with Xi had not a conflict arisen.
The main focus of the trip was to reunite with old friends in Xi’s home province of Hebei, with which Iowa has had a sister states relationship since 1983, and look for ways to expand trade.
About 25 percent of Iowa soybeans are exported to China, as is roughly 25 percent of all dried distillers grain from ethanol plans, Steve Sukup said. China’s growing middle class has increased demand for pork, which is another leading product of Iowa, and there is great interest in increasing the amount of corn and beef sold to China.
“Overall there has been a great imbalance of trade with them, but agricultural products have been a strength in the past and they’re probably the best opportunity for growth because they’re products they need now,” Sukup said.
Meetings in Hebei focused on strengthening existing partnerships and looking at future sister state project possibilities. Branstad spoke at a forum in Beijing and met with the Chinese secretary of agriculture to promote Iowa products.
A highlight of the trip, Sukup said, was a meeting with Bai Runzhang, a Hebei province leader and native son who was among those on the 1985 visit to Iowa. It was the first time they had met since the 1985 visit to the Sukup farm and Sukup Manufacturing Co.
Along with Branstad and Luca Berrone, another Iowan who took part in the 1985 visit, the Sukup family shares an “Old Friends” relationship with Xi and Bai, explained Kim Heidemann, executive director of the Iowa Sister States program. The Chinese place a very high value on old friend relationships, she said. “Steve’s participation in the trip was meaningful on several levels,” Heidemann said, as it showed a continued effort to nurture the relationship. Having the same people involved “is why the trust and friendship runs so deep.”
Another highlight of the November trip included a visit to the site of a proposed farm that would replicate one near Maxwell, Iowa, that the Chinese delegation visited in 2012. The Iowa visitors provided advice on equipping and operating the farm, which would serve as a tourism destination, convention and exhibition center, ag business incubator, and a model for improving practices and profitability of agriculture in China.
A Chinese delegation followed up with a visit to Iowa in March that included a stop at Sukup Manufacturing Co. to continue planning the farm. “We want to help farmers in China do a better job with agriculture and develop agriculture,” said Chen Bin, chief executive officer of RiseSun Real Estate Development, a project partner.
Meanwhile, Steve Sukup said he is eager to watch and help, if asked, as Branstad begins his service as ambassador to China. The two worked together when Sukup served in the Iowa House of Representatives from 1994-2002, and the Sukup family has had a strong relationship with Branstad since the early 1980s.
“I go back a long way with the Sukups. Eugene and Mary were very helpful to me when I ran for governor” for the first time in 1982, Branstad said in a 2012 interview. They went on the first state-sponsored trade mission to China in 1984. “I just have a lot of respect and admiration for them for what they’ve done,” Branstad said, as corporate citizens, innovators, and as employers.
Sukup Manufacturing Co. is headquartered in Sheffield, Iowa, and covers 1,000,000 sq. ft. of office, manufacturing and warehouse space. The company employs more than 500 people, making it one of the largest employers in North Central Iowa. Its new wholly owned subsidiary Sukup Steel Structures in Ambridge, Pa., employs more than 90 others.
Sukup’s product line includes farm and commercial grain bins, three types of grain dryers, centrifugal and axial fans and heaters, stirring machines, and bin unloading equipment. Sukup also manufactures bucket elevators, drag and chain loop conveyors, support structures and catwalks.
Sukup has six distribution centers in the Midwest and a division in Denmark that serves customers throughout Europe. Sukup has customers in more than 80 countries.
Three generations of the Sukup family are active in the business.
“Old Friends” get together during the Iowa Sister States November 2016 visit to Hebei province in China. From left to right are Steve Sukup, chief financial officer of Sukup Manufacturing Co., Bai Runzhang, vice chairman of the Hebei provincial congress, U.S. Ambassador to China and former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, and Luca Berrone, general manager of industrial equipment manufacturer SACMI USA in Urbandale, Iowa. All were part of a 1985 tour led by Xi Jinping, now president of China, to learn about Iowa agriculture.