As the recently elected Sister City Chair for our newest Sister City, Porto Alegre, I was fortunate enough to take part in a trade mission to Brazil led by Mayor Bob Buckhorn and organized by the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation. Brazil's reputation as one of the strongest economies in the world combined with the excitement of hosting both the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympic games filled me with anticipation for what this trip would bring.
This was not my first Sister City or trade mission. I previously took part in missions to Ashdod, Israel and Barranquilla, Colombia. However, this was the first time I was taking part in the signing of a new Sister City and serving as a Sister City Committee Chair. Sister Cities International creates relationships based on cultural, educational, information and trade exchanges.
Here is a summary of my observations during the visit:
Sunday, October 20th 2013 – Getting to Brazil
We arrived in São Paulo this morning and arrived at the hotel to find what appeared to be Rock and Roll groupies stationed around the hotel. After we checked in, we learned that our Hotel was shared by the "Monsters of Rock'' concert occurring in Brazil for the first time in 15 years. The massive number of fans attending the expensive concert was another indicator of Brazil's growing middle class. Since 2001, over 40 million people have joined Brazil's middle class, which now represents approximately 53 percent of the population. Later that night, we held a welcome reception for the delegates to have a chance to meet each other and take notes on which Rock Stars were seen in the hotel. Several of us saw Steven Tyler and Joe Perry being picked up by their driver; or perhaps that was the Caipirinhas served at the welcome reception.
Monday, October 21st 2013 – Day 1
Our trip began with a country briefing provided by U.S. Consul General Dennis Hankins and Commercial Consul Steve Knode. This country briefing was quite illuminating. The majority of these presentations are buried in economic data. However, Hankins and Knode delivered presentations that provided a realistic picture of the current State of Brazil including major challenges.
The three biggest challenges facing Brazil today are inefficient bureaucracy, underdeveloped infrastructure and high taxation. However, these three challenges offer great opportunities to Tampa. Many Brazilian businesses want to create enterprises in the United States and the ease of doing business in Florida makes Tampa an attractive location. Underdeveloped infrastructure offers opportunities to Tampa firms that can help Brazil to build out and maintain new infrastructure. High taxes lead many members of Brazil's rapidly expanding middle class to save their shopping lists for trips to Florida. Brazilians bring back so much merchandise from Florida malls that TAM airlines carries extra fuel to compensate for the increased weight of returning baggage.
Tuesday, October 22nd 2013 – Day 2
On the second day of our mission, the delegation delivered a "Doing Business in Tampa Conference'' hosted by the São Paulo Chamber of Commerce. Many of the Brazilian companies in attendance asked questions related to taxation and the process to create a business in Tampa. One memorable question was related to the minimum amount of capital required and the length of time to create a new business entity. Our delegation answered "no minimum capital requirement and around two minutes.'' At this point, the Brazilian company representatives laughed, and thinking we were joking, repeated the question. We would hear this question repeated throughout the entire trip. It was clear that the ease of doing business in Florida was welcomed by all Brazilians.
Wednesday, October 23rd 2013 – Day 3
On the third day of our trip, the delegation taking part in meetings in Porto Alegre left São Paulo in the early morning and arrived to our new hotel just before noon. We immediately had to depart to a reception at the American Chamber of Commerce of Porto Alegre where we were greeted by business leaders from Porto Alegre.
I was greatly impressed by the staff of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation's ability to quickly handle scheduling changes as the number of meetings and events grew dynamically as different contingents of the delegation established the need for additional meetings. Lorrie Belovich of the THEDC's ability to keep us all moving in the right direction shows the skills of a great conductor.
In the evening, we were invited by the American Chamber of Commerce to attend a VIP viewing of a soccer match between Porto Alegre's Grêmio and São Paulo's Corinthians. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn was presented with his own Grêmio jersey. As we cheered for the "home team,'' we hoped that our new friends in São Paulo would not see us wearing the rival's colors. This was in vain as Grêmio's victory over the Corinthians led to a photo of Mayor Buckhorn cheering in his new jersey and crediting his presence with the victory. Let's hope that the Mayor's return to Tampa can help some of our other home teams.
Thursday, October 24th 2013 – Day 4
The morning began with a breakfast hosted by FEDERASUL, a consortium of business leaders from the region. Mayor Buckhorn, Rick Homans of THEDC and Bob Rohrlack of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce presented a panel discussion and Q&A session promoting business in Tampa. Many of the questions were once again focused on the ease of doing business and taxation. The business people at my table confided in me that they felt it was unnecessarily difficult to get business done in Brazil and were eager to explore opportunities to partner with or create new business in Tampa.
After breakfast, Mayor Buckhorn and I departed for city hall to meet with Mayor José Fortunati. After a discussion over what opportunities our two cities shared, we exited to an adjoining room in which the delegation and local press were on hand to witness the Sister City Signing. After which, the two Mayors traded gifts and both spoke about their earnest desire that this agreement be more than a piece of paper quickly forgotten and that we must work to make it bear fruit.
Thursday, October 24th 2013 – Day 5
On the flight home, I sat next to the recently promoted Director of Systems Operations - Latin America for Johnson controls. Our discussion surrounded the opportunities already being realized for his firm and those waiting for Tampa businesses that are willing to pursue them. This was an unexpected but welcome reminder that developing business and cultural ties with Brazil would be a lot of work but will pay dividends that could last decades.
The first year is often a critical period of a new Sister City relationship and it will by my responsibility to ensure that the relationship does not become simply a ceremonial one. To that effort, we have already begun to work with the Tampa Hillsborough EDC, Deborah Wilkinson, the Executive Director of the Tampa Bay Trade and Protocol Council, and others to put together the next set of activities. We hope to culminate with a delegation from Porto Alegre to visit Tampa.
Alfred Goldberg is President of North American Operations for Absolute Mobile Solutions in Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.