Tampa Bay area businesses expand trade with Chile, create local jobs

Chile is shaping up to be one of Florida's leading trade partners as more and more Tampa Bay area businesses are building fruitful relationships with the South American country. The result? An economic boost likely to result in more jobs in the local region.

Forty Tampa Bay area business leaders flew down to Santiago, Chile, in December for a three-day trade mission organized by the Tampa Bay Export Alliance. The result today? $9 million in anticipated export sales, with ripple effects in the form of expected increases in job growth and tourism.

“Our main goal is job creation,” says Lorrie Belovich, director of international business development for the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation. “Even though international trade sometimes seems unrelated to economic development, it is absolutely related because the more we can get companies to export, the more viable their businesses will be, the higher wages they’ll be able to pay, and the quicker they’ll grow.”

Back in May 2014, the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation teamed up with Pinellas County Economic Development to form the Tampa Bay Export Alliance; a partnership designed to boost job growth and capital investment by way of international trade. The TBEA works with the U.S. Commercial Service to facilitate “matchmaker meetings” for local businesses participating in the trade missions.

Four Tampa Bay business leaders who participated in the Santiago trade mission talk with 83 Degrees Media about what makes Chile such an attractive venture. 

Jay Conroy: CEO of Hydro-Dyne Engineering Inc.

For Hydro-Dyne Engineering, which manufactures water and wastewater screening and separation equipment, doing business with Chile has been in the works for quite some time. 

“We’d been talking to some customers down there for a few years, but we hadn’t sold anything to Chile mainly because we didn’t have any traction,” says CEO Jay Conroy, who studied environmental engineering, sales engineering and business administration at the University of Florida. “We were very capable to supply the equipment, but we didn’t have any local connections to help us close the deals and win the jobs.”
Seeing an opportunity for his products in municipal water and wastewater treatment plants, the mining industry and more, Conroy went to Santiago in hopes of meeting with and retaining a manufacturer’s representative firm to serve as a local sales representative for the region. By all accounts, he says, the trip was a success. Conroy connected to potential new customers and firms through matchmaking meetings organized by the U.S. Commercial Service.

“I was hoping to come back with maybe one rep company that would be good, but ended up with three or four viable options,” says Conroy. “So I had kind of an enviable problem of deciding which firm would be best, and then calling the others back and letting them down.” 

For Hydro-Dyne, securing more international business equals more jobs for the Clearwater-based company.

Craig C. Ruda: CEO of First Choice Marine Supply

Prior to the Santiago trade mission, First Choice Marine Supply had engaged in light international trade with Chile, but nothing too extensive. This time around, CEO Craig C. Ruda was looking to really increase the company’s global presence. 

“I was actually doing some research about doing business in Brazil when I stumbled upon an advertisement for the trade mission,” he says, noting that the free trade agreement the U.S. has with Chile was definitely a draw. “The concentration of where we do business starts to drop off when you get into South America. We’ve really been pushing to move down that way and expand our footprint.”

First Choice Marine Supply may have started out 27 years ago providing basic marine equipment, but the company has since grown into a multifaceted business. Its technical lighting and commercial fishing divisions are among the company’s largest. 

Ruda says there’s a viable market in Chile for First Choice Marine Supply’s solar LED lighting equipment, which translates to multiple industries. For example, they’re applicable to Chile’s dominant mining industry, as well as to its aviation and telecommunication industries since the lights can be used to mark towers.

“We had several very meaningful meetings down there, and I truly expect to be doing business with all of them,” says Ruda, who studied civil engineering at the University of Alabama.

Joanne Quade: President of Pro-Tech Coatings Inc.

Pro-Tech Coatings Inc., which has been a staple in the Tampa area for over 30 years, does the bulk of its business manufacturing epoxy coatings for the concrete industry.

“Part of what we do has to do with refurbishing underground sewers and aiding in urban development,” says Joanne Quade, President of Pro-Tech Coatings. “In Santiago, we were hoping to find customers in need of our water-based epoxy coatings, which are environmentally friendly.”

Quade, like many of the other Tampa business leaders who participated in the trip, was zeroing in on Chile’s copper mining industry. But what she found most rewarding, Quade says, was interacting with Chilean culture.

“The organizers of the trip provided me with a driver, and the woman I got as my translator has actually become a dear friend since the trip,” says Quade, who graduated from the University of Southern  California with a degree in social work. “The companies we met with down there were wonderful. They’re also anxious to develop and eager to engage in international trade with Tampa.”

Quade says she’s still in talks with the companies she met on the trip, and is especially interested in importing a Chilean-made roofing product she could use at Pro-Tech Coatings. If she’s able to secure these new relationships, she adds that it’ll definitely boost the local economy here because she’ll need to hire more employees to handle the workload. 

Nancy Crews: CEO of Custom Manufacturing and Engineering Inc.

The passion behind Pinellas Park’s Custom Manufacturing and Engineering is a simple one: to design and build. Specializing in electrical and electronic products, the company has been a player in the government defense world for years. In fact, its flagship product is a tactical power supply bought by the U.S. Army.

“We’ve built over 17,000 of these, and they’ve been in the war zone,” says Nancy Crews, CEO of the nearly 18-year-old company. “Chile marked our first trip into South America as a business looking for international trade.”

After meeting with Chilean companies that the U.S. Commercial Service thought would be a good fit, Crews was more than pleased with the outcome. She primarily met with power equipment companies in the market for control panels, in addition to companies that do defense work in Chile.

“Four of these companies were really strong leads,” says Crews, who is still in talks with these contacts. If these deals go through, she’ll be looking to hire more production workers and engineers.

When it comes to engaging in international trade, Crews says that having an arsenal of contacts is absolutely vital. “You need to have those feet on the ground,” she says. “We’re currently trying to find a representative in Chile to represent us.”
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Read more articles by Marianne Hayes.

Marianne Hayes is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.