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International Business Symposium 2017 Features Commerce Experts

By Keith Morelli

attendees at symposium

TAMPA (April 27, 2017) -- The sea on which global commerce sails is no longer calm. Political divisions and economic differences are churning up those waters and the course set by international companies and traders is now beset by hurricanes and typhoons.

The International Business Symposium 2017: Charting a Winning Course in the Uncertain Waters of Global Commerce, proved timely, as just hours earlier, President Donald Trump tweeted that he was considering abandoning plans to scrap NAFTA, opting rather to renegotiate it.

"We're excited about the future," said Juan Sabines, Mexican consul whose office is in Orlando. "I think what we see now is a great opportunity."

Trump's tweet was good news to Sabines.

"There are many voices out there," he said, "many leaders who support NAFTA."

The symposium took place Thursday in the Muma College of Business atrium, with about 75 attending, and sought to answer questions for businesses and corporations involved in or thinking about international trade. The event brought together senior trade officials from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the United Kingdom's Department of International Trade and the government of Mexico, as well as international business experts on China and India, who shared insights and advice on how to capitalize on the uncertainties in these markets.

Moderators of the panels included Eileen Rodriguez, regional director of the Florida Small Business Development Center at USF, Adrian Mutton, CEO of Sannam S4, which sponsored the event; and Mike Meidel, director of Pinellas County Economic Development.

Though discussions addressed a broad range of topics, there was a strong focus on manufacturing, aerospace, defense, travel and tourism, higher education and financial technology. Speakers also talked about future cross-border trade opportunities and challenges, import tariff dynamics, changes to immigration laws and new international trade agreements.

Sabines said that the economies of both the United States and Mexico would suffer if the administration's leanings toward isolationism are realized. But, he is confident free trade will continue.

"This country is a very strong country," Sabines said of the United States. "You have great leaders, great people. We will put our hope in the people, the institutions and the commerce."

Six million U.S. jobs are dependent on the free-trade agreement with Mexico, Sabines said, including 300,000 in Florida.

Among those jobs: workers at the sprawling Port Tampa Bay.

Greg Lovelace, director of marketing and business development with Port Tampa Bay, said the amount of tonnage that goes through the Tampa port to and from Mexico is staggering, and it appears to be growing. Where limestone and liquid sulfur come into the port, fertilizer, made up of those two commodities here, is shipped back to Mexico to bolster its growing agricultural industry, which then ships those products back into the United States.

He said Mexico is among the top two countries that trade with the United States, often rivaling China for the top spot.

"From 2007 through 2016," he said, "every single year, Mexico has been the second top market for exports and imports with the United States."

Lovelace also said that partners in foreign lands also help in shipping logistics.

"You need to partner with an expert," he said, "just like you wouldn't rewire your home alone."

Nancy Crews, CEO and owner of Custom Manufacturing & Engineering, echoed that sentiment.

Giving advice to business owners wanting to open up trade with another country, Crews suggested going to that country, hit the trade shows and find a partner. Then figure out a way in which both can make money.

"You will need feet on the street there," she said.

She also said isolationism just won't work in today's worldwide economy.

"We live in a global environment," she said. "Years ago, everybody moved to where the labor costs were the lowest. Now, there is a regional strategy where not just the labor costs are considered. If we approach the problem from that perspective the conversation will change and we will be able to move forward in a global manner."

Across the pond, Brexit has rocked Europe with the United Kingdom opting to leave the European Union. France is in the middle of a heated election in which one of the candidates also wants out.

Just what the future holds for international traders as the European Union and the United Kingdom finalize their divorce, with France waiting in the wings, remains clouded.

"Brexit is both a challenge and an opportunity," said Ryan Barnes, senior international trade specialist with the U.S. Department of Commerce. "It's a challenge because it upends some of the markets. It's an opportunity because it opens up prospects for unilateral trade agreements with the U.K."

David Prodger, British consul general, said he doesn't think there will be a "seismic shift" in international trade because of Brexit.

"I don't anticipate huge changes," he said.

Charles Bennett, CEO of Zymol, a car-wax company that has expanded into 70 foreign markets over the past 30 years, isn't too concerned about the impact of Brexit on his business.

"I do see people sitting down and talking and relationships being re-examined," he said. "But I don't see people sitting down to make things worse."

USF Provost Ralph Wilcox, in his opening remarks at the symposium, said the timing was perfect for a gathering of this nature, to inform businesses about the economic turmoil that surrounds international trade, and perhaps to calm some of the fears.

Carmen Tovar, with Pest West, a Sarasota manufacturer that makes pest control devices and sells them on the international market, came to get some answers.

She was hoping some of the projections about the future presented by the panelists hold true and her global business can continue with little or no interruption.

"I'm in all the countries talked about in this symposium here today," she said.