Utah’s rising prominence as a player in the global business landscape was the focus of a Thursday conference in Salt Lake City that included an impressive roster of domestic and international leaders including former President George W. Bush, former Mexican President Vicente Fox and past Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

And the former U.S. president shared a message about the importance of unity at a time characterized by deep political divisions.

Natalie Gochnour, associate dean for the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business and director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, told attendees of the Crossroads of the World Summit at downtown’s Grand America hotel that Utah had already established itself as the crossroads of the West and was building an argument for a more ascendant position.

“What I do know is we’re the undisputed crossroads of the West and that’s the seed corn for being the crossroads of the world,” Gochnour said.

Gochnour shared data that reflects Utah’s outsize performance when it comes to global trade, including a comparison of the state’s rankings of 30th in the country in terms of population, 29th largest economy but 16th on a basis of per capita export values.

Gochnour also pointed out that, among western states, Utah has the third highest per capita export ranking, even beating out economic powerhouse California.

“It’s a pretty big punch,” Gochnour said.

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A newly released Gardner Policy Institute report finds Utah companies exported $17.4 billion in goods in 2023, generating $4 billion in earnings and supporting nearly 72,000 jobs across the state. That export traffic contributed $8 billion to Utah’s GDP and $16.7 billion to the state’s gross industry sales output.

Utah companies exported goods to 200 countries last year, with the UK topping the list of export destinations with $7.2 billion in traffic, most of it, $6.8 billion, coming from the export of unwrought gold. Primary metals represent the lion’s share of Utah’s export products, representing over 41% of overall exports. Canada and Mexico rounded out Utah’s top three export markets in 2023.

Other top Utah export products include computer/electronic parts, chemicals and miscellaneous manufacturing commodities.

While Bush was among the marquee speakers at Thursday’s event, the former president’s presentation was closed to media.

Harris Simmons, chairman, president and CEO of Zions Bank parent Zions Bancorporation, interviewed Bush at the event and said, ahead of the exchange, he spent some time revisiting the 43rd president’s autobiography, “Decision Points.”

“Everybody has their own political slant on his time in office but it reminded me of how President Bush was a great leader and, I think, was widely underestimated about how thoughtful, well-read and principled he is,” Simmons said. “And I think that really came through in our conversation today.”

Simmons said he and Bush touched on the deep divisions that run through much of American politics at the moment in a conversation that served as a reminder for many attendees about the power of principled leadership.

“I heard many comments from people who were in attendance today that expressed a yearning for the kind of leadership that brings people together,” Simmons said. “I don’t agree with everything any politician does or says but I think Gov. Cox is doing an outstanding job of reminding us all that we’re all on the same team ... that there’s something larger than all of us. And President Bush really drove that home with a message reminding us we’re one nation and that whatever flaws we have in our system, it’s a system that will self-correct.”

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox quipped about his role as the state’s CBO — Chief Bragging Officer — and shared an anecdote from a recent trip to Vancouver, B.C., where he attended a TED conference.

Cox said he shared a dinner table with a well-known hedge fund billionaire, who he declined to identify, who said Utah’s most powerful built-in asset was the shared characteristics of its residents as smart, hard-working people who prioritize their families.

“Those are Utah values and they used to be American values,” Cox said. “Utah is what America used to be and, I hope, what it can be again.

“I can say those things (about Utah) but to hear it from someone else ... I thought a lot about that conversation.”

From left, former Mexican President Vicente Fox shakes hands with former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Crossroads of the World International Trade Summit at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 23, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

World Trade Center Utah president and CEO Jonathan Freedman, whose organization cosponsored the event along with Zions Bank, said the conference was aimed at exploring international trade as the “unique space where diplomacy and business intersect.”

“(WTC) aims to enhance cooperation between business and government entities ... and offer insights to place Utah companies at the front of global commerce.”

Fox, who served as Mexico’s president from 2000 to 2006, underscored the importance of the North American Free Trade Agreement, struck in 1992 but replaced by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement in 2020, as a hallmark trade accord which has led to ongoing benefits for all three countries since its inception.

“We have moved the world economy to new heights through trading,” Fox said.

Fox also discussed the ongoing migration challenges facing Mexico and the U.S., and noted that while Mexican migrants have made huge contributions to U.S. productivity, the country was approaching a labor crisis of its own.

“Some day pretty soon Mexico will not have the capacity to provide labor for this nation,” Fox said. “That is the big change that’s coming. Mexico will not have the capacity to export labor.”

Fox also shared his thoughts about Utah as a prime trading partner for Mexico and said he sees room for further growth in the shared import/export exchanges between Mexico and the Beehive State.

Harper, who won three consecutive elections representing Canada’s Conservative Party and served as the country’s prime minister from 2006 to 2015, predicted his party is positioned to retake control in elections currently scheduled for fall 2025. He said the country’s bounty of natural resources, including forestry products, agriculture and energy, form the backbone of Canada’s trade assets and noted his country, in partnership with the U.S. and Mexico, have the wherewithal to push back against anti-competitive practices, including strategic bans, embraced by the world’s top exporter, China.

“China only buys from any of us because they absolutely need our products,” Harper said. “If we work together, we can mitigate their periodic ban efforts.”

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Fox also warned about the rise of authoritarian regimes in Latin America and said the continued cooperation between the democracies of Mexico, Canada and the U.S. would become more critical in a changing global environment.

Former Zions Bank president and CEO Scott Anderson, who continues to serve as the Utah-based financial institution’s board chairman, said the opportunities afforded by Utah’s growing international trade activity are not limited to just the state’s largest companies.

“As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, even small and mid-size companies are finding ways to connect globally,” Anderson said.

From left, former Mexican President Vicente Fox and former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speak with Mark Garfield at the Crossroads of the World International Trade Summit at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 23, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News