International business corps finds state legislators receptive to concerns
By Zachary S. Fagenson
With the first Florida International Days in nearly a decade now history, organizers and the international business community say they've caught the eye of lawmakers and are looking forward to an expanded conference, and presence in the capital, next year.
But their ultimate goal is to ensure lawmakers are well aware of the importance of international business to the state's economy as a whole.
"I think it was an excellent first step," said Frank Ryll, director of global outreach for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the event. "We got the evaluations back and every single person said we should do it again."
Next year's conference, he added, will probably be a half day longer and earlier in the legislative session.
In past years, led by former Secretary of State Katherine Harris, hundreds of international business leaders descended upon the state capital in an effort to make the sector a legislative priority. This year about 140 attended, Mr. Ryll wrote in an e-mail.
And though the group worked to ensure lawmakers heard their voices, the conference wasn't a lobbying session.
"This really found a home and visibility, but it didn't operate in the way that you would when you're interfacing with rank and file in key committees," said G. Lee Sandler, founding partner of the international law firm Sandler Travis & Rosenberg PA, who discussed some key legislative issues during the two-day event. "This was re-establishing our credentials as an important part of the economy in the state."
But others said there was talk of some critical, near-term issues.
"I think the big issue that's on everybody's mind is, with the widening of the Panama Canal, "Is Florida going to be positioned to take advantage of that?" Mr. Ryll of the state chamber asked. A "big piece of that the ports and [their]… capacity to bring in these large ships and the transport of cargo to markets across the country."
Stephen Fancher, president and CEO of the Florida Export Finance Corp., which provides export financing to small businesses, said he was "pleased" with what he heard from gubernatorial candidates Alex Sink and Bill McCollum at an opening reception at the governor's mansion.
One of his top priorities for lawmakers is the cash collateral fund, which is included in the state's jobs bill that offers additional finance support to small exporters, who comprise a big chunk of Miami's export sector.
"It is collateralizing the unguaranteed portion of transactions… in order to reduce the risk to lenders," Mr. Fancher said. "We guarantee 90% and [the fund] would have to absorb the other 10%."
With so many small exporters in the state, he said, the measure would be a boon to a sector still recovering from the worldwide financial collapse.
And though the next conference is a year away, Mr. Sandler said a number of steps are needed to ensure any headway gained isn't lost.
"You have to continue building the network around the state," he said, not only "individual companies, but also the association of the ports and the government agencies that understand these issues.
"You have to reach out to the people that have already participated, but you have to go well beyond those," he added.
And with an election around the corner, the success of next year's conference may also hinge on the international business community's ability to buddy-up with newly elected lawmakers.
There "will be a totally new cabinet [and]… there'll be significant changes within the house and the senate," Mr. Sandler said. "We have to have a more definitive outreach to those… that [are newly] elected."