When Gov. Kathleen Blanco returned from Cuba last month, she came home with far more than a contract to sell $15 million of Louisiana agriculture products.

She also came home with the deepening respect of business executives and economic development officials who see Blanco as the state’s chief sales representative.

“Kathleen Blanco is doing something for this state that no governor before her has ever done,” said Joe Elder, owner of Elder Wood Preserving Inc., a Mansura-based firm with $28 million in sales, including marketing to Mexico, Cuba, China and England. Elder was one of 19 big businessmen who went along on the March trip to Cuba.

“I haven’t seen any body in these previous administrations going out of their way to do something like this,” Elder said. “It was like a shot of adrenaline. You kept hearing people say things like look at this governor, look at what’s she’s doing for us.”

Pedro Alvarez (left), chairman of the Cuban food import agency Alimport, and Gov. Kathleen Blanco pay a visit to “El Floridita” bar in Havana, Cuba, on March 10. (AP) By John Hill

Roy Johnson, director of market development for the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, says a traveling governor makes his job so much easier. Johnson was on the initial trip led by Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Mike Olivier in December, when representatives from more than 30 states attended a trade conference in Havana. “They are all trying to sell to Cuba,” he said.

Blanco’s return trip sealed the deal, Johnson said.

“The Cubans are not going to make the sale if the governor doesn’t go,” Johnson said. “They love attention. If the governor shows up, they are going to buy from you. Price doesn’t mean as much. Quality is important, but it’s that kind of attention they are looking for.”

Felipe Martinez, a Cuban native who left at age 11 in 1961, is an international marketing project manager for Louisiana Economic Development. Before joining the department 10 years ago, Martinez was an international banker in New Orleans.

“We are definitely not one of the newcomers to the game,” Martinez said. Alabama, Texas, Iowa, Minnesota, Florida and Montana have all made big sales to Cuba. Blanco put Louisiana in the game, he said.

“They obviously love government officials there with the trade groups,” Martinez said. “It’s a showcase situation for them. We known that’s their angle and in turn, we know it will sell goods for us.”

Martinez also said he’s not aware of any previous Louisiana governor who’s been so willing to travel with Louisiana economic development officials.

“No one has been as active as she has been,” Martinez said. “The obvious benefit is the state gets a second look from the prospect. It adds a higher level of interest to the trip and the sales pitch. When it comes from the state’s chief executive officer, it gets more attention.”

Blanco plans more international trips to help sell Louisiana products. Among the possibilities are late summer or fall visits to England and to Asia.

“We have to explore all markets,” Blanco said. “The world operates as a global market, and our agriculture products are dependent on that international market.”

Besides the trip to Cuba, Blanco has traveled to the big oil business trade show in Houston, the national site selectors confab in San Antonio, manufacturers in Canada, has assumed the chairmanship of the international organization of Mexican and American states rimming the Gulf of Mexico, and has made numerous trips to Washington.

Blanco said she’s detecting a difference in how Louisiana is perceived.

“The state and local economic development officials are being taken very seriously when they court somebody or recruit new businesses,” she said.

There is a political benefit to Blanco, said University of Louisiana-Lafayette political scientist Tom Ferrell.

“I don’t remember another governor doing as much traveling as she has, but she campaigned as someone who would be the state’s biggest promoter,” Ferrell said. “The state’s not really able to embark on any new initiatives, so this is a good way to keep her name and face before the public.”

Unlike her immediate predecessor, Gov. Mike Foster, Blanco has made frequent trips within the state, which has not gone unnoticed.

“She’s been in this area several times,” said Dick Bremer of the Shreveport Chamber of Commerce. “We’re very pleased with her commitment to promoting economic development.”

Bremer particular cited Blanco’s hosting a dinner for several major site selection companies during her San Antonio trip last fall. As a result of that, those companies are now looking at Louisiana, Bremer said.

“She’s doing a very good job of demonstrating that Louisiana is open for business. When we needed her to make phone calls or meet with people, she did it,” Bremer said.

Reporter Mike Hasten contributed to this story.