Landlocked and situated more than five hundred miles from the nearest international border, Oklahoma is not typically known for its international ties. Yet the Sooner State is a top destination for foreign students, travelers and companies. Oklahoma-made products are shipped far and wide, stimulating the state’s economy while adding to employment. According to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce’s 2014 Global Report, foreign companies employ more than 48,000 Oklahomans, while the state exported more than $6.3 billion worth of goods and products.

These vital economic metrics are the result of decades’ worth of work by local business and government leaders in raising Oklahoma’s international profile. One such leader was former Governor George Nigh.

Governor Governor Nigh

Governor Governor Nigh

Nigh’s focus on building the state’s international ties truly began with his affiliation as a member of the Junior Chamber International. The then-lieutenant governor played a key role in campaigning for Oklahoma City’s role as host for the group’s annual international congress. As both a governmental representative and junior chamber member, Nigh attended international meetings in locales as far flung as Paris and Hong Kong to promote Oklahoma City as a host for the International Jaycees.

“It wasn’t easy because the Jaycees had rules that allowed for only one host city per country,” explained Nigh. “That meant Oklahoma City had to be selected by the junior chamber’s members above everywhere else in America, and then win the international selection process as well.”

With Nigh helping lead the charge, Oklahoma City was selected above major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles and San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 1965, Nigh was one of the participants in the international congress taking place in the heart of Oklahoma City at the Skirvin Hotel. Nigh even arranged for the conference’s official hostess to be Perle Mesta, a member of the Skirvin family and a famous Washington D.C . socialite, former ambassador to Luxembourg and subject of the Broadway musical “Call Me Madam.”

“We had representatives from 70 countries from around the world come to Oklahoma City to attend that conference,” said Nigh. “Getting that international conference held here, that is what got me interested in more international things as they related to Oklahoma.”

He recalled that one of his biggest challenges in building Oklahoma’s international ties, one shared many governors’ who’ve followed Nigh, was trying to put the state’s best foot forward to potential investors abroad while being criticized back home. Legitimate concerns about funding for international delegations often times became muddled with sniping by opponents looking to score easy political points.

Nigh’s experience in drawing multinational company Hitachi to Norman stands out particularly in this regard.

After months of discussions with the Japanese corporation, Nigh and Hitachi’s president reached a tentative agreement that would see the company open a location in Norman. The only condition was that the governor hold on releasing the announcement until the company president had time to present the plan to Hitachi’s board of directors.

“Word got out that I had been in Japan, and someone at The Daily Oklahoman ran an editorial cartoon looking into the cabin of an airplane as I ate rice with chopsticks,” recalled the state’s longest serving governor with obvious disappointment. “Hitachi called me and said that if that is how Oklahoma saw Hitachi, that we could forget about them coming.”

In a last minute bid to save the deal, Nigh boarded an airplane that very night and flew to Japan alone. Meeting with the Hitachi board, Nigh explained the political dynamics at play in the state and the cartoon’s true target.

Said Nigh, “I told them that is not how our state viewed Hitachi, but rather how one newspaper viewed me.”

The governor’s last minute bid proved effective, as Hitachi’s ongoing presence in Norman can affirm.

Hitachi Computer Products (America), Inc.  of Norman, Okla.

Hitachi Computer Products (America), Inc. of Norman, Okla.

Nigh found challenges in overcoming misconceptions about the state abroad too, many of which were fueled by the United States greatest export; its popular culture.

“I was at a reception for a trade delegation in Hong Kong where the host came in late, walked by me without introducing himself and took to the podium to say that the only thing he knew about Oklahoma was what he read in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.”

While he combated misconceptions about the state’s true potential versus the landscape popularized by the Jodes, Nigh credits the association with one native son, Will Rogers, and one play, “Oklahoma!” for presenting the it in a better light.

In fact, Nigh’s association with the latter extends further than his role as the politician responsible for introducing legislation making it the state’s official song. As he tells it, during his participation in a delegation of five U.S. governors touring Japan in 1982, the country’s emperor met each member of the delegation with a hand shake.

“He greeted us individually and said something nice about each state, but didn’t speak more than that initial greeting to any of the other governors. I’m the last one he shakes hands with, and he tells me that when he thinks of Oklahoma, he pictures wheat, cattle and oil,” recalled Nigh. “Then he turns to walk away. But then he turned back to me and says very enthusiastically, ‘Great musical!’.”

The former governor has dozens of stories like this, each told with an enthusiasm about the experience but also for the state that each tale centers on. This unbridled passion for Oklahoma and its potential for connections globally is just one reason why he was awarded the Sister Cities International OKC Global Vision Award in April 2015.

“George Nigh was a visionary in understanding how important international relationships would be for Oklahoma’s future,” said Vicki Clark Gourley, president of Sister Cities OKC in a release regarding the award.

Looking back to where Oklahoma has come from the days when Nigh was first promoting Oklahoma City as a premier destination for the International Jaycees, the Sooner State has benefited greatly from the foresight of its longest serving governor.

Started from a family BBQ recipe in 1947, Ponca City, Okla.’s Head Country is a well-known commodity in the country’s grocery stores and dinner tables. Yet this domestic success is just one facet of this Oklahoma exporter’s story. Under Vice-President Paul Schatte, Head Country began to explore expanding into global markets.

“Outdoor cooking is the oldest form of food preparation in the world,” said Schatte during a presentation to the Oklahoma Governor’s International Team in May 2015. “And no one does it better than Americans.”

Head Country VP Paul Schatte - Photo courtesy

Head Country VP Paul Schatte – Photo courtesy

It was that prowess for the American grill that first brought Schatte’s attention to the potential in exporting Head Country. As he describes it, several emails and phone calls from a potential customer in Sweden about how best to prepare a Head Country BBQ recipe resulted in Schatte’s visit to the Scandinavian country for a personal demonstration. The successful contacts and business resulting from that foray resulted in Head Country’s expansion to other international markets.

Schatte spoke with the OKGIT about Head Country’s experience in exporting as an Oklahoma company.


How many employees do you have in Oklahoma?

“We have 27 employees in-state, and occasionally use temps outside of Oklahoma when necessary.”

Can you give me an idea of how much Head Country relies on exporting its products outside the U.S.?

“Our international sales account for around five percent of our total business.”

What are your biggest markets to date? Are there some new markets you see worth exploring in the future?

“Head Country is currently established in foreign markets in Europe, Canada, Mexico and Australia. Some new and potential markets of interest include China, other parts of Asia and central and South America.”

What are some of the challenges Head Country faces in exporting from Oklahoma? Are there some benefits from exporting from Oklahoma as well?

“Some of our main challenges of late include a strong U.S. dollar, European food standards and the understanding of our products.

“In terms of positives, Oklahoma is received favorably around the world. Our state’s history of cowboys and Native Americans is found intriguing to the international community. The state is looked at for honesty and being diversified.

“In that vein is Head Country, which proudly represents Oklahoma in foreign trade!”

Looking back to when Head Country first began producing items for export, is there any advice that the company would provide to fellow firms in Oklahoma who are considering forging international ties and exporting?

“Evaluate every question that the foreign distributor asks. What special requirements do you need to meet to manufacture products for them and to get the product imported into their country?

“And finally, charge appropriately for your company’s investment into producing international commodities.”

In terms of trade, what are some challenges for an American food firm in exporting?

Today Head Country’s export destinations include Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) partners in Scandinavia, Spain and Germany. We also export to Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) nations like Australia and hope to export to other Asian nations that are part of that agreement.

“In some TPP countries, we face tariffs as high as 20 percent on our product. Should these two trade agreements, the TTIP and TTP, be ratified, Head Country could face lower tariffs and easier regulations, making our products more competitive abroad and consequently, benefiting our workers here in Oklahoma.”

Dr. Jim Collard, John Curzon, Jennifer Springer and Ray Brown, Pipeline Equipment, Inc.

Dr. Jim Collard, John Curzon, Jennifer Springer and Ray Brown, Pipeline Equipment, Inc.

Among the estimated 94,000 attendees to this year’s Offshore Technology Conference in Houston, Texas were several representatives from the Lone Star State’s northern neighbor, including members of the Oklahoma Governor’s International Team.

Dr. Jim Collard of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Economic Development Department, John Curzon of CCK Strategies and Jennifer Springer of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce were on hand as group representatives for an evening reception co-sponsored by the ODOC and OKGIT.

“Simply put, it was a great opportunity to showcase Oklahoma for companies from across the country and across the world,” said CPN’s Dr. Collard.

The annual offshore technology conference is an international affair with energy professionals from across the globe converging on Houston to meet and showcase new technologies, practices and ideas. While the conference is focused on energy industry issues, the diversity of industries represented by the 94,000 attendees offers opporunities to discuss issues as wide ranging as international trade, technological updates and financing for future projects.

If you’d like to learn more about the 2015 Offshore Technology Conference or future events like it, visit their website here. If you’d like to learn more about the Oklahoma Governor’s International Team’s participation in the 2015 event, please contact Dr. Jim Collard, John Curzon or Jennifer Springer for more information.


Closing out a successful 2014, Shawnee-based Mills Machine Company was honored by Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Mark Costello for its innovative commercial success and investment in Oklahoman jobs. Commissioner Costello presented company owner and president Chuck Mills with the Entrepreneurial Excellence in Oklahoma Award.

“I am constantly in awe of Oklahoma and the many successful and profitable private companies that I have been exposed to,” said Costello. “Each of these amazing business owners has a unique story about why they started their company and how it has evolved over the years. I want to honor these entrepreneurs for their commitment to Oklahoma and for their success in creating opportunities for other Oklahomans.”

The award was presented at the company’s Shawnee manufacturing facility on Dec. 18, 2014.

“Our company has been under the leadership of the Mills family for 106 years here in Shawnee,” commented Mills upon receiving the award. “But none of our success would have been possible without our loyal and hardworking employees.”

District 17 Senator Ron Sharp and District 26 Representative Justin Wood, who represent the Shawnee-area at the state capitol, were also in attendance. Both presented commendations to Mills.

Founded by the Mills family in 1908, Mills Machine Company is a leading manufacturer of earth drilling tools. It has become a multimillion dollar company providing a full line of specialty earth boring tools and accessories for water, mining, construction, utility and environmental applications. Under current owner and president Chuck Mills, the company has expanded to new domestic and international markets over the past 35 years.

Mills focus on investment in Oklahoman jobs is reflected in his service as the acting Chairman of the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce and the Governor’s Council for Workforce and Economic Development. Mills’ has previously served as the chair of the Oklahoma Governor’s International Team, an organization he continues as an active member.

The Entrepreneurial Excellence in Oklahoma Award recognizes Oklahoma-based entrepreneurs who have created profitable employment for their fellow Oklahomans and to foster a positive business atmosphere. Legislators, local Chambers of Commerce, civic organizations and the public nominate deserving businesses regardless of size or age, though the decision of award winners is left to the labor commissioner.

(Pictured above: (Left to right) Commissioner Larry Costello, Rep. Justin Wood, Chuck Mills, Sen. Ron Sharp, Shawnee Mayor Wes Mainord.)