ODESSA, Mo. -- From a battery maker charging ahead to a plastics plant in hard times, Republican gubernatorial candidate Kenny Hulshof heard about Missouri's economic highs and lows Friday as he kicked off a 10-day business tour building up to the primary election.
Hulshof is visiting 26 businesses around the state as a means of highlighting the importance of job training, economic development incentives and a pro-business climate in what he describes as a "pocketbook election."
A 12-year congressman from Columbia, Mo., Hulshof is competing against Treasurer Sarah Steelman of Rolla, Mo., in the Aug. 5 Republican primary. The winner is expected to face Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon in the November gubernatorial election.
Steelman is in the midst of her own 13-day, 59-town bus tour with campaign events in people's living rooms and backyards.
The economic outlook was gloomy -- or challenging, at best -- at Hulshof's first stop on his business tour. As he walked past the plastic presses at Action Products Co. in Odessa, chief operating officer Garrick Doebele explained how the company recently cut back dramatically on its production of portable, cushioned stadium seats after a major retailer opted for a cheaper version from China.
The company so far has avoided layoffs because it also makes numerous other products, from mop buckets to car parts. But Doebele expressed concern about the future.
Ford dealer Harold Hoflander of Higginsville, Mo., added his concern about the present. Higher gas prices have driven down demand for new vehicles, particularly trucks, he said.
"It's tough right now," said Hoflander, who joined Hulshof's tour in Odessa.
But about 30 miles to the south, at the EnerSys battery plant in Warrensburg, Mo., business was booming -- so much so that the company is undertaking a $39 million expansion and boosting its payroll from about 630 to 820 employees, said Malcom Gavant, a vice president of operations. Just this month, the plant shipped its first order of batteries for the Navy's nuclear-powered submarines, he said.
"Business is good," Gavant said. "There's a lot of struggling companies, and their woes have helped us in our hiring" by providing a good pool of prospective employees.
At most stops, Hulshof did more listening and questioning than political campaigning. He explained that he wanted to hear what was working well and what needs improvement.
Blunt and Steelman both have praised Republican Gov. Matt Blunt for improving Missouri's business climate. Both are running because Blunt announced in January that he would not seek a second term.
Hulshof said the contrast between the businesses losing and gaining customers illustrates the importance of a highly skilled work force in a knowledge- and technology-based economy.
"I think Missouri generally has made some progress," Hulshof told employees at the Starline Inc. plant in Sedalia, Mo., who temporarily shut down their production of brass bullet casings to listen to him. "We need to build upon that."
The bullet-casing plant provided another example of business success. Because of increased demand for its product, the plant recently added about 10,000 square feet -- a more than one-third increase in size, said chief financial officer Barbara Hayden.
Steelman's campaign, however, questioned Hulshof's business tour by highlighting one of her chief differences with him. Steelman has focused her campaign in recent weeks on her call to repeal the state's ethanol mandate for gasoline.
She contends the required sale of the corn-based fuel is hurting the economy by driving up the cost of food, and even fuel. Hulshof counters that it's helping hold down the price of fuel by as much as 40 cents.
"I can't imagine a plan that he has that would actually help Missouri businesses," said Steelman spokesman Spence Jackson. "The ethanol mandate he supports is responsible for the loss of hundreds of jobs in this state."
Jackson pointed to a poultry processing plant in Springfield and livestock farms in southern Missouri, which he said have gone out of business because of the rising cost of feed. Ethanol plants, however, also have created jobs -- both by their construction and by directly employing people.