Working from his home office in Drums – when he's not on an airplane flying across an ocean – Mark Oulton has an interesting perspective on this area and the global economic scene, at least the agricultural part of it.
Oulton's title is a mouthful: Global Agricultural Market Research Manager for SGS North America, the U.S. operations of a Geneva, Switzerland-based consulting firm with 70,000 employees scattered throughout the world. Among its services to the food industry is estimating production for everything from Argentinean soybeans to Vietnamese coffee. On the company's website this is called crop scouting and yield assessment.
I stumbled across Oulton's name while searching for something else. He was quoted prominently in a couple of Bloomberg articles, with the dateline of Wilkes-Barre. Intrigued, I tracked him down one day – he was just finishing lunch at Olive Garden in Wilkes-Barre Township.
I use Wilkes-Barre because it's recognizable, he explained, which should make local economic development types feel good. I don't think there's a Drums Chamber of Commerce to be offended.
While his route here was a varied one – I was brought up on a coffee estate in Kenya, he told me – Oulton is pleased with his location. Apart from the tax rates it's a very desirable place to live, he said, allowing that taxes aren't so bad compared with other northeastern states. His satisfaction might sound surprising coming from someone who left England eight years ago for a position in the Hazleton area and who now could live anywhere, but Oulton has good reason to feel as he does.
I travel all over the world, he said, including two trips this year to China. Actually I'm served by seven airports. And even our much maligned Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International is important to him, since it provides direct flights to Chicago, the world center of commodity trading.
Here are a few of his observations on the world food economy and our place in it:
• U.S. companies, from fertilizer and seed producers to equipment makers, are highly competitive. In the ag world, we're doing extremely well.
• But they're going to have to work to stay ahead. Some of these countries are now producing products like chemicals that are off patent.
• Producers have the capacity to feed the world … at a price. A shrunken U.S. corn harvest leads to tighter supplies and higher prices, and that goes down the line to the poorest countries where many people can't absorb even small rises in the cost of staple foods.
With a background in math, statistics and marketing, Oulton has enjoyed a long career in the agricultural industry. He has another asset that gives him an edge in the global economy; in addition to English he speaks French and Mandarin Chinese. Most people in SGS speak at least four languages, he said.
That's something America needs to work at if we're to keep up with international business challenges. It's hard to pin down a solid figure, but various estimates say fewer than 20 percent of Americans speak a second language, half of them living in immigrant households. Meanwhile, more than half of Europeans speak at least two languages and half of those speak three.
At a time when budget cuts dominate the political and educational conversation, businesses with export aspirations and parents concerned for their children's future would do well to pressure schools to expand rather than reduce language training. If we continue to speak only English, we may find no one listening before too long.
Ron Bartizek, Times Leader business editor, may be reached at [email protected] or 570-970-7157.