Ben Franklin set to bank on MFN's future

FLOUTING the common belief that Sino-US trade relations are heading for a rough ride, US retail giant Ben Franklin yesterday signed up a local agency in a move to beef up imports from the mainland.

Ben Franklin, the biggest chain of craft stores in the US with total sales of US$1 billion last year, has appointed Elite Enterprises - part of the privately-owned Genuine Ocean (Holdings) Company - to mastermind its buying in the Asia-Pacific region.

President and chief executive officer Dale Ward said some 65 per cent of total exports already came from China, including artificial flowers and baskets, Christmas trinkets, toys, houseware and outdoor furniture.

Around half of total Ben Franklin merchandise is made outside the US.

Mr Ward anticipates a surge up the league table for the mainland, currently the fifth-biggest supplier and seventh-biggest trading partner to the US, as the American economy moves into recovery.

He said: ''I am very hopeful the US will move quickly for MFN [Most Favoured Nation status]. I think the average American citizen realises the need in our economy to open doors more to China trade.

''I believe the recent environment is one that will foster movement towards that agreement.'' Elite Enterprises president Dave Wickland is looking for turnover of US$25 million in the first year.

He said: ''With Ben Franklin's aggressive expansion programme in its craft business and a stream of new store openings, we expect to see the annual volume hitting the US$40 million mark within five years' time.'' Elite's parent company, Genuine Ocean, is best known in Hongkong for its ''Everything's HK$10'' store in Tuen Mun.

A second of the concept stores is due to open its doors to business in Kowloon city this June.

Ben Franklin, a publicly quoted company, turned in a profit of US$3.5 million last year through its 950-plus retail outlets and wholesale activities.

Mr Ward said the good value offered by China-made products meant that US businessmen were fighting hard to preserve good trade relations with the mainland.

Further, he said the strong focus of the new administration on America's own economy - as pledged during the election campaign - went hand-in-hand with fostering strong ties with outside economies, including China.

With the exception of certain groups - broadly farmers and those in the car and steel industries - US businesses were looking to freer trade to boost profits, he said.

''The average voter today has a very positive image of China, compared with two years ago, and the mood generally is much more favourable about the steps China has taken to improve.'' The Elite link-up will be heavily focused on China within the region.

It will, however, take in Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines among others.

In addition to question marks over the unconditional renewal of China's MFN status, there are fears the new US administration will take harsh steps to hack back a burgeoning trade deficit with China and to penetrate invisible trade barriers that allegedly persist after the Section 301 market-access agreement.

But Mr Ward believes the new administration will improve market access at the same time as promoting stronger links.

He said: ''Although the Bush administration talked a good story, they did not move trade-wise.

''I am hoping that the Clinton administration, even though it is Democratic which has traditionally been more protectionist, will move forward to do more on the trade front.

''I think it will look more strongly on releasing some of these trade restrictions.

''American businessmen see China as a huge country of vast resources.

''We cannot sit back and be judgemental, because we have economic problems ourselves.''