TAMPA — The Tampa metro area is still the flounder to Miami's great white shark when it comes to the amount of exports flowing from businesses here to other parts of the globe.
Still, local business leaders say they are casting a wide net for new customers, working to haul in some big fish: foreign partners ready to purchase American goods shipped out of Tampa.
The Tampa metro region is already exporting enough merchandise to be named among the top 50 exporting areas in the nation, according to the International Trade Administration, which issued a brief on exporting this month. Despite its high ranking nationally, though, exports from the Tampa area in the past five years have remained somewhat flat, hovering around $6.5 billion, with a high of $7.7 billion in 2011, according to the Tampa Bay Partnership. The partnership is an organization working to market this region nationally and internationally for economic growth.
Business leaders admit it's a tough arena to grow, requiring a lot of ground work. And there is stiff competition right here in Florida. Although the Tampa- St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area exported $6.7 billion in merchandise in 2013, the Miami area exported $41.8 billion in goods. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he'd like to see those numbers shift a bit, to Tampa's advantage.
“We don't want all of the business,” Buckhorn said. “We just want more of the business.
“We have spent a great deal of time over the last three years targeting countries where we have relationships, strategic advantages, cultural similarities and existing trade partners,” Buckhorn said. “We have traveled multiple times to Panama, luring Copa Airlines here with four flights a week. That opens up the entire Central and South American corridor. Copa will pay dividends for decades,” said Buckhorn, who sits on the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority Board.
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Tampa International Airport is a partner in this growth effort. As larger, wider planes begin to fly from here to other countries such as Panama, that means more space for export cargo, said Chris Minner, vice president of marketing for the airport. Growing international flights is a priority for Tampa International and helps in the efforts being made by the rest of the business community.
Trips to Colombia, Brazil and one to Chile in December are all designed to increase foreign investment, both inbound and outbound, Buckhorn said.
Although some Latin American countries have deep ties to the Miami region, he said, “we are telling them that it is a lot easier to do business in Tampa than Miami, easier to clear customs and it's the closest port to the Panama Canal, which means speed to market. Time is money.”
The International Trade Administration, in its brief, announced that goods exports from Florida supported 275,221 jobs in 2013. The report called exporting a driver of the state's economy.
David Hale, chief executive officer for privately held Tampa Tank and Florida Structural Steel at Port Tampa Bay has found success in exports to the tune of about $60 million in merchandise last year.
“In the past five years, we have doubled our exports,” Hale said. But, he agrees that building new partnerships for exports is a slow process.
“We are constantly working on building those relationships,” said Hale, whose company, with 220 U.S. employees, exports steel petroleum tanks, some large enough to hold a football field. Tampa Tank has regional offices in Panama, Guatemala, the Bahamas and Colombia and ships its tanks as far away as Africa and Saudi Arabia.
Most of the companies exporting out of Tampa are small- and medium-size companies like Tampa Tank with fewer than 500 employees, according to the International Trade Administration.
Computer and electronic products are the No. 1 export from this area, accounting for 38.2 percent, or $2.5 billion, of all goods and services sent out of the United States from here. Chemicals, (21.7 percent, $1.4 billion) came in second, followed by transportation equipment (5.2 percent, $1.4 billion), machinery, except electrical (5.2 percent, $344 million) and food and kindred products (4.2 percent, $282 million).
“This new research demonstrates that exports continue to drive our economic growth and create jobs,” said Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Stefan M. Selig, in releasing the report. “U.S. companies of all sizes are exploring the possible benefits of exporting and looking beyond our borders to expand their customer base. More than 95 percent of potential consumers live outside the United States and crave the world-class products offered by American businesses.”
Port Tampa Bay President and CEO Paul Anderson and Hale of Tampa Tank met last week in Washington, D.C., with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and other trade authorities to discuss trade policies and how to bolster exports.
“President Obama's National Export Initiative: Next (NEI/Next) makes it a priority for the federal government to be a full partner to states, metropolitan areas, and counties on efforts to increase exports,” said Tim Truman, with the Department of Commerce. “Through NEI/Next, the Department of Commerce and other federal agencies are building greater awareness among regional leaders about the benefits of exports and how to help companies take advantage of opportunities.”
The port signed a memorandum of understanding just last week with the Port of Cartagena, Colombia, to strengthen ties between the ports in preparation for trade. Port Tampa Bay has several similar agreements in Central and South America, including with the Panama Canal Authority. The agreements “encourage and support a working business relationship and opportunities for trade growth,” port officials said.
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Growing this area's export business is certainly a local priority and commitment, said Rick Homans, president and chief executive officer of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. “What we hope to see over the next five to 10 years is to see our exports increase as a percentage of our economy.”
The focus is on building partnerships in Latin America and in Europe, Homans said. His group has joined forces with Pinellas County Economic Development to take business leaders on various trips to Europe and Latin America to forge partnerships, as Buckhorn had mentioned.
“We've taken companies to Brazil and Colombia and in December we are going to Santiago, Chile, next summer to Toronto. These are all trade missions where we take 10-20 companies from Hillsborough and Pinellas and help them to open new markets and expand their sales and increase jobs and capital investment here in Tampa Bay.
“We've been told by the embassies and foreign offices that we are doing it as good or better than most other cities,” he said.
A recent business trip to Brazil resulted in $12 million in anticipated exports for local companies, said Jennifer Mikosky, vice president of marketing and communications for the economic development corporation. The Gold Key program with the US Department of Commerce — where business heads go as a group to foreign nations — is a way to conduct one-on-one business, matchmaking companies from here that want to grow exporting with companies throughout the world, she said. “That is where we see the result.”
Chile is a good example, Homans said. “Chile needs agricultural machinery and equipment, food processing equipment, electric power equipment, health care equipment and mining equipment. Chile is not a huge manufacturing country, so they need to import these products. We have huge opportunities to sell in to that market.
“There is a great need for what we have to sell, but we have to take the trip and get in front of the buyers,” Homans said.
Much of the time, it's a matter of supply and demand, said David Lee, senior director — supply for The Mosaic Company, which last year, shipped 3.9 million metric tons of phosphate for fertilizer out of Florida ports. For his company, the demand comes from developing countries with growing populations and dwindling arable land to grow food.
Electric Supply, a company that sells mostly to utilities in the Caribbean, has also found the demand on the international market. Once customers are established, the job of exporting gets easier, said Ralph Kluesner, international sales manager for the 16-year-old company.
“From the time I started until today, our exports have expanded three to four times the size they were to roughly $15 million a year,” Kluesner said. The company sells electrical equipment to utilities and for industrial commercial applications and the mining industry in places like Chile, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Bermuda and the Dominican Republic.
These are items that are not manufactured in the countries where they are going, Kluesner said. “Every island has to boat everything in.”
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While the airport is working to expand international flights that will include more room for exports, Port Tampa Bay is preparing, as well.
“We are certainly investing on the infrastructure side to be in position to handle new growth,” said Wade Elliott, vice president of marketing and business development for Port Tampa Bay. He referred to the two new gantry cranes the port is purchasing to better handle wider loads on new container ships traveling to and from the port. The $24 million cranes should be in place in about two years.
“Essentially, the key to our success is working with our partners,” Elliott said. The port is also focused on attracting manufacturing operations to the port, so they can ship quickly. And the new Interstate 4 connector road to Port Tampa Bay allows trucks from all over Florida and the south to more quickly and directly reach the port and get goods shipped out, he said.
Homans, with Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., said now that Tampa International Airport has the Swiss airline Edelweiss flying in and out of here, more business people are traveling to and from Europe. So, the area is also building opportunities for more jobs here.
“Germany and Switzerland do a lot of manufacturing,” he said. “As the US economy picks up speed and strength, it becomes a place for them to sell in to. They want to get closer. By coming here, they would be closer to their market. And the cost of production, utilities, labor and real estate is much less here in the U.S. than in most European countries. It's an easy case to make in Europe to move manufacturing here.”