LARRY ZIMPLEMAN, CEO OF DES MOINES, IOWA–BASED PRINCIPAL FINANCIAL GROUP, knows how to get what he wants. When Xi Jinping made Iowa one of only three stops on a February trip to the U.S. that included a first-ever meeting with President Obama, Zimpleman worked behind the scenes to make sure he got face time with the man widely expected to become China’s next Communist Party chief and president. Zimpleman had a good reason to want to meet with the current Chinese vice president: Principal, an $8 billion-plus-in-revenue company that develops retirement savings and investment products and has quietly built profitable outposts around the globe, needs China’s approval to sell retirement products in that country. Although Principal has planted its flag there — it has a joint venture with China Construction Bank Corp. to sell mutual funds — it wants the go-ahead to be an enterprise annuity provider so it can complete the next leg of its international expansion.

Zimpleman, who took over as CEO of Principal in 2008, shortly before the financial crisis erupted, needed Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to arrange the meeting. During a trade mission to China last September, Branstad had invited Xi to his state for a reunion with Iowans the Chinese vice president had met on a sister-city exchange in 1985, when he was a young party official from a northern pig-farming region in China and Branstad was serving his first term as governor. On that original visit to the U.S., Xi was looking to draw on Iowa’s expertise in raising fatter pigs and increasing corn and soybean yields.

But Zimpleman, who grew up on a farm in eastern Iowa and didn’t get his first passport until he was 46, wanted Xi and the rest of the Chinese delegation to see his state — and his company, which has invested $1 billion building out its international footprint — as exporters of cutting-edge financial services. Zimpleman is betting that China now needs to worry more about helping its growing middle class save and invest than about getting enough food. Encouraging people to save for retirement is the CEO’s mission for Principal, and he needed Branstad to understand that Iowa’s financial services exports could be as valuable as the state’s agricultural trade. Branstad got the message, and Zimpleman was part of a private reception with Xi that included Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, as well as Deere & Co. CEO Samuel Allen and Monsanto Co. CEO Hugh Grant.