Tampa Bay area companies explore connections with Colombian businesses

It's been nearly three years since many Tampa-area businesses took part in a trade mission to Colombia. Occurring just months after the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement was put in motion, the trip was designed to foster fruitful new relationships with the South American country. 

Looking back, experts say the initiative was a clear success.

"We did about $7.3 million in expected sales from that trade mission," says Lorrie Belovich, director of international business development for the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation. "We have a lot of strong ties to Colombia; it's actually the number two top trading partner with Florida."

Colombia is a particularly attractive market for the Tampa Bay region for a number of reasons. According to Belovich, Bogota has put a lot of money into infrastructure and development. The city is also shedding the inaccurate image of being dangerous and economically turbulent. 

"It's just a very safe, major city, and exporters looking at Colombia are very pleasantly surprised by what's going on on the ground over there," she says.
Belovich adds that Tampa Bay's top export sectors to Colombia include IT, food processing, automotive and more. On the whole, the Latin American country also thrives on renewable energy and infrastructure investments.

What else is driving local companies to explore Colombia?

Three Tampa business owners share why they're investing in this relationship.

Absolute Mobile Solutions

Absolute Mobile Solutions is no stranger to sustaining international relationships -- the Tampa-based digital marketing agency also has offices in Germany and Romania. Setting up shop in Colombia has been in the works for some time.

"[Bogota] is emerging as a tech hub for all of Latin America, and we saw that once we were down there," says Alfred Goldberg, president of Absolute Mobile Solutions. "Latin America is going to be the next big market for mobile technology. I believe Brazil is already the fifth-largest mobile market in the world - that' s bigger than India."

During his participation in the Colombian trade mission back in 2012, Goldberg realized the importance of establishing a viable presence there. Opening an office and hiring additional staff would give them the opportunity to grow a local reputation and, in turn, snag some local business. But as Goldberg notes, these kinds of new relationships take time to flourish (especially in Latin America).

"Our biggest concern is with the increase in recognition of what they have there in Bogota," Goldberg adds. "Will it be difficult to acquire talent? Because that would be our primary reason for opening an office."

Either way, he says that Colombia represents a very attractive emerging tech market.

Micon Packaging

When Peter Tracey, CEO of Micon Packaging, saw a unique opportunity to create a business relationship with Colombia, he jumped on it. 

It began with a Colombian operation that exports flowers from Bogota to Miami. From there, the flowers are shipped out to several Florida-based satellite operations. The downside? The two jumbo jets the company used were then deadheading back to Colombia with no cargo. After introductions were made, they identified an area of opportunity.
What if the jets returned to Colombia with some of Micon Packaging's corrugated flower boxes? Tracey says they've done some preliminary shipments and it seems to have improved the concept. They're currently working on refining the program and securing regular ties to Colombia. He adds that Micon, which has been operating in Tampa since 1978, may also be able to fix a unique problem for the flower supplier.

"When they ship the flowers in boxes, they're shipped with water, and that keeps the roses properly hydrated for the shipment," says Tracey. "But they've had a lot of problems over the years with water spilling out."

When this happens, water can saturate the cardboard boxes, which can actually cause a whole pallet to fall over in transit. It's an expensive problem that Tracey might be able to solve. He's currently developing boxes that prevent moisture absorption while still preserving the roses. 

If all goes well, the new relationship will be a mutually beneficial one.

Holland & Knight

Tampa law firm Holland & Knight, which sponsored the 2012 trade mission, has a long history of business dealings with South America. In 2012, they officially opened a practice in Bogota, which represents both Colombian companies that have international legal needs, as well as non-Colombian businesses interested in entering the Colombian market.

"Because of the growing market there in general, the free trade agreement, and the fact that the attitude of the government there is very positive toward foreign investment, it all led us to come to the conclusion that we should set up an office there," says Bob Grammig, a partner in Holland & Knight's Tampa office and leader of the firm's Public Companies and Securities Practice.
"We already had a significant level of clients, and we had Colombian lawyers that worked for us, so it was a happy set of coincidences that let us go in there -- and we've had a lot of luck in Colombia," he adds.

The firm's Colombian presence helps U.S. businesses that are just entering the Colombian market to navigate the unfamiliar waters. Grammig says that approaching a big infrastructure project in Colombia actually isn't all that different from seeing a similar project through in the United States.

"If you tried to do something across the Everglades, for example, you'd have a lot of issues that would have to be dealt with," he says. "Except in the U.S., you generally know who to approach and what agencies to go to and all that sort of thing. In Colombia, you have to have somebody who knows the ropes on the ground."

Grammig adds that Peru is another expanding Latin American market with great trade potential for Tampa.

"One of the things people forget is that we are the closest port to both Colombia and Peru in the U.S.," says Grammig. "There's a great deal of potential for additional jobs and economic activity with both those countries."
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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.