Behind The Scenes With The Largest Trade Mission Ever to Hit Colombia

December 6, 2012

Tampa Bay Business Journal
On Monday morning, in a large banquet room at the JW Marriott Hotel in Bogota, U.S. Ambassador P. Michael McKinley delivered the news to a crowd of nearly 200 Floridians, including Gov. Rick Scott and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn: this trade delegation would be the largest from any city or state, and possibly country, in the history of Colombia. It would also be the first Governor-led mission since the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement went into effect on May 15, 2012.
Traveling through Bogota this week with Gov. Scott, Mayor Buckhorn and the rest of the Tampa-Hillsborough delegation, what’s impressed me most is the energy and vitality of this country. There is a palpable feeling that they are about to explode economically, leaving a troubled past behind. That is why it is so critical for us to be here now, sending the strongest signal possible that we are serious about doing business in Colombia.
In addition to the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., our community is represented on this mission by the Tampa Port Authority, Tampa International Airport, University of South Florida and the Tampa Hillsborough International Protocol and Trade Council. While we are primarily focused on exploring opportunities for new contracts and business deals, our political leaders also play an important role in developing relationships with their government counterparts and business associations.
Gov. Scott and Mayor Buckhorn took their pro-trade message straight to the top, meeting with Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon. Mayor Buckhorn and I met with Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro and his economic development chief, where we learned that they are investing billions of dollars in transportation and infrastructure projects. Many European political leaders have called on Petro since the enactment of the free trade agreement, but no U.S. state and only two mayors.
Mayor Buckhorn led a small delegation to meet with Monica Ramirez Rojas, executive director of the VISITUSA Committee Colombia, addressing Tampa International Airport’s efforts to establish direct air service between Bogota and Tampa on Avianca Airlines.
Gov. Scott and Mayor Buckhorn also led a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Tampa-based law firm Holland & Knight, signifying the firm’s expansion into Colombia. They currently employ 10 attorneys at this location, and offer representation to Florida companies doing business in Colombia.
A core component of the trade mission is a series of “matchmaking” sessions that pair participating companies with potential business opportunities. The U.S. Commercial Service at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota has worked diligently in the months and weeks leading up to this trip to organize face-to-face meetings with Colombian companies that might be interested in purchasing our products and services.
Prior to the start of the trip, well over 200 of these meetings had already been scheduled. At 40 tables stationed throughout an expansive hotel ballroom, participants turned over every half-hour. As I walked around the room, I saw Florida companies walking their potential customers through power points, price lists and contracts. Everyone was talking business. From the Tampa Bay region, companies such as Acoustiblok, Florida Chemical Supply, New England Machinery, Goodyear Rubber Products, American Water Chemicals and A.R. Savage & Son were all working on deals. They will join other local delegates, like Absolute Mobile Solutions, in continuing on to Barranquilla for additional commercial meetings.
As I write this Dec. 5, we are off to Barranquilla, on the northern coast of Colombia, a Sister City to Tampa and another bustling metropolitan area. Like Bogota, we have learned that Barranquilla is a city investing in itself, offering ample business opportunities for Tampa Bay companies.
For months, we have worked with American Chamber of Commerce in Colombia-Barranquilla, along with other key partners, to arrange more than 70 commercial meetings for the 11 companies accompanying Mayor Buckhorn on this mission. We will also introduce Mayor Buckhorn to Barranquilla Mayor Elsa Noguera de la Espriella and re-affirm our Sister City relationship, as we lay important groundwork for the future.
International relationships are built on trust and understanding, and take time to deliver results. We feel confident that this mission will produce deals that lead to job creation, but we also hope to accomplish something even more enduring; to build personal friendships that turn into lasting, productive business partnerships. By this measure, we have already succeeded.
— Rick Homans is president & CEO at the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp.