Bank of America Merrill Lynch recently surveyed 603 chief financial officers from U.S. companies about the state of the economy, their businesses and the U.S. manufacturing sector. It published an upbeat 2015 CFO Outlook Report in February, based on interviews done in December and January. Michael Mrnak, a vice president with BofA's commercial banking office in Minneapolis, talked with the Star Tribune about the report's findings. Mrnak works with medium-sized manufacturers in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Wisconsin.

Q: What expectations did the CFOs you surveyed have for this year? Were they different from 2014?

A: CFOs believe the U.S. economy is at its highest level since the 2008 recession and foresee growth in their sales, workforce and companies in 2015. A majority of the CFOs surveyed report that the outlook for their companies is increasingly positive. CEOs report that they are more optimistic that the economy will expand than they have been in the past four years. In fact, 52 percent expect expansion in 2015 compared to 47 percent last year.

Q: Were the CFOs from large or small corporations?

A: The financial executives were from firms with annual revenue ranging from $25 million to $2 billion.

Q: Last month, the state of Minnesota reported record exports for midsize farm and manufacturing companies in 2014. Did your survey find similar success for midsize firms selling products overseas?

A: Our survey revealed that over 54 percent of companies have some foreign market involvement, and the top two regions in which U.S. manufacturers have foreign operations are Europe (70 percent) and Asia (69 percent). We also found that manufacturers are looking to establish new operations in Latin America (16 percent), Asia (15 percent), Europe (14 percent), and half are most likely to go global by establishing an in-market subsidiary.

Q: Minnesota companies increased hiring last year. But there is a concern in recent weeks that employment gains will be jeopardized. While total employment rose by more than 36,000 in 2014, Minnesota firms from all industries laid off 7,900 workers in January. What did CFOs you surveyed say about hiring in 2015?

A: Companies plan to ramp up for growth by hiring new employees and offering compelling benefits. For the first time in seven years, more than half (52 percent) of CFOs reported that they expect to hire additional full-time employees this year, while 44 percent have no plans to change their workforce size.

Q: You mentioned compelling benefits for new hires. What might those be?

A: CFOs report that their companies are investing in both retaining and attracting qualified employees by providing benefits. Some 96 percent are offering health care insurance; 92 percent are funding retirement programs; and 87 percent are offering bonuses or other compensation. More than half also offer wellness programs (63 percent), education funding (54 percent) and flexible work hours (52 percent).

Q: Did the CFOs reveal other employment trends for 2015?

A: Six percent of responding CFOs expected shifting full-time work to part-time. That's down from 8 percent last year. Likewise, only 3 percent of CFOs said their firms were replacing some full-time workers with contractors. That compares with 5 percent from last year. This year only 5 percent were planning layoffs, compared with 7 percent a year ago.

Q: What are your manufacturing clients saying about investing in equipment and technology?

A: We're seeing a tremendous amount of capital expenditure spending when it comes to equipment financing. Businesses need to become even more efficient to stay relevant and remain competitive in today's marketplace.

Q: Disappointing jobs reports have been issued for February and March. And the national GDP for the fourth quarter of 2014 was just revised downward. Have any Bank of America clients commented about these current developments in the wake of the CFO Survey report?

A: Our clients in the Upper Midwest region seem to be cautiously optimistic. We're still seeing an overall confidence in local business owners when it comes to the local and national economy.

Q: What challenges do your clients anticipate through the end of the year?

A: I think we'll continue to see slow but steady growth throughout this year. One challenge our clients share is the difficulty they're having finding the talent they need. It's a tight labor market, but the local workforce has a strong work ethic, education and workplace accountability. We're seeing the creation of a talent pool with the high-tech equipment operating skill set needed for the manufacturing space.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725