By MITCH LIES

Capital Press

SHANGHAI -- Despite reports to the contrary, a top U.S. forest products executive said China's building boom is showing no signs of slowing.

"I get the feeling things are going along pretty well over here, and they will continue to," Steve Zika, CEO of Hampton Affiliates, said Sept. 21 during an Oregon trade mission to China.

The 13-day trade mission, which ended Sept. 23, was led by Gov. John Kitzhaber.

Zika said he joined the delegation to get a firsthand view of how China is weathering the recession and to learn whether China's building boom is slowing.

"You read in the paper about how they are tightening the interest rates and credit is getting harder," Zika said. "But I needed to see it for myself and talk not just to the spokesman for the government, but the people who are actually doing business, and ask them are they starting to see it slow down.

"And I don't think so," he said.

China has become Hampton's largest export customer, Zika said.

The Portland forest products company has been working on the market for three years, Zika said.

"For us, we're trying to bridge the gap until the U.S. market comes back," he said. "Hopefully we will continue to have this business overseas, so we have a variety of customers."

The company recently hired two people who speak Chinese to help with logistics and customer interaction, he said.

"In the U.S., a customer calls up and says I want two carloads shipped to Kansas City," he said. "Here there is a lot more paperwork involved. Shipping has to be lined up.

"It is just a more complicated business," Zika said, but the Chinese market is vital.

"I think you've got to have a presence here, or you are potentially going to take your mills down," he said.

Zika said one key to achieving a strong presence in China is developing personal relationships with buyers.

"In China, the relationships really do matter and having the government involved and being part of the governor's trade mission helps your cachet," he said. "Our customers know when ... you are with the governor."

Zika also said he is taking advantage of "having a chance to network with the governor and some of his staff.

"They are very busy in Salem," he said. "It is nice when you can get a few moments with them."

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