International trade continues to be a major topic of discussion for professionals, politicians, and citizens across the globe. The global economy is increasingly interconnected, and enables the improvement of our everyday lives – from the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the cars we drive, the technology we utilize, and the jobs we work.
This is why trade promotion exists. There are organizations entirely dedicated to better understanding and further improving the relationships that keep trade moving. Whether it be educating businesses throughout various industries, or meeting with foreign diplomats and ambassadors; forming and maintaining these relationships matter when it comes to trade.
It takes a special kind of person to be “the middleman” that can facilitate trade and foster intercultural appreciation simultaneously. The Archway had the opportunity to speak with Andrew Gelfuso, Vice President of Global Business Development at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington D.C. to find out more on what a career in trade promotion entails.
Chris: What are the goals of the International Trade Center in terms of trade promotion and advocacy? What are some of your responsibilities as Vice President?
Andrew: I serve a dual role here at the International Trade Center: I am both the Director of the World Trade Center Washington, DC (WTCDC) and the Vice President of Global Business Development for TCMA, which is part of The Drew Company. TCMA is the real estate company that has the contractual relationship with the U.S. Government to manage the 3.1 million sq. foot property. Given that the building is so large and has a mix of public and private sector tenants, event space, as well as a congressional mission to promote trade and cross cultural exchange, we spend a good part of our time creating a world-class forum in the heart of DC to promote and educate the national business community around various aspects of international trade.
As the Director of the WTCDC, we advance partnerships with other World Trade Centers around the globe and we promote trade and facilitate key relationships, organize inbound and outbound trade missions for a variety of industries and we host trade/cultural events –about 250-300 a year– many of which are open to the public. We focus on developing new international clients, business matchmaking, trade counseling, strategic partnerships and government relations; though this sounds broad these things are all interconnected.
In terms of advocacy, I have a background in that but our role isn’t to advocate as much as it is to promote and facilitate here. I do serve as a private sector advisor to the U.S. Department of Commerce and USTR on trade policy which takes the form of suggesting text to be contained in bilateral and multilateral agreements that are in the preliminary or draft stages. Another way that we are involved with local government officials promoting trade is that we are quite active with the District Export Council of DC and Virginia (organized by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce), the DC Mayor and local governors. Trade is a very important issue to both the local and state government because of the jobs tied to it, the essential role of ports and airports in trade, and inward investment which usually benefits the real estate industry first but often impacts much more.
Chris: How important has forming and maintaining relationships been throughout your career and in your current role? Considering you meet with ambassadors from all over the world, have you gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of other cultures?
Andrew: I saw the way that Ray Fogarty, the Director of the Chafee Center, (called the RI Export Assistance Center at the time), was able to find creative sources of funding for export services- in large part to the trust that he had developed and the relationships that he built in local, state and national government. That was a model that I followed in DC; first I assembled a great team, then we built a network of global partners and together we have turned a “building” into a bustling international center. In fact, I still work with people here in DC that I met 20 years ago in RI and the company that I work for I actually met for the first time in the Chafee Center conference room and it is a Boston-based business. They developed and currently operate the World Trade Center Boston and when I was in RI we used to collaborate around consulting and best practices for various export support services and products.
There are many kinds of experts in international trade and investment and I think that it has been essential for me to maintain an extended network of contacts because many aspects of international trade or even a specific trade deal can be highly complex. I was taught by my father at a young age, and again by Ray later in life, that it is important to know what you don’t know and bring in the right people that have other skills and expertise. That mantra also translates to our office providing the best service possible because we have sophisticated partner organizations around the country and the world that we refer clients to, receive referrals from, and partner with on economic and diplomatic initiatives.
Being in a diverse location like Washington, DC where we have almost 200 embassies and people from all over the world is certainly an interesting environment and we are exposed to many points of view and perspectives on politics, trade and culture. I was always interested in different cultures, from the time I was a teenager traveling with my parents and as a college student studying and living in India and Vietnam in the mid-nineties. Cultural understanding and sensitivity or nuances can make or break deals with a foreign company or government. What I have seen is that most people are eager to tell you what life is like in their country and by taking a genuine interest in other peoples’ backgrounds it can lead to deeper personal relationships which often advances business. The term of art for this principle is cultural diplomacy—it is to promote a country’s food, music, culture and tourism, as well as trade and investment opportunities.
Chris: You worked as a manager at the Chafee Center for International Business here at Bryant University in the late 90’s – how did this prepare you for a career in trade? Did you have a mentor who inspired you to pursue this career path?
Andrew: Working at the RI Export Assistance Center was eye opening in many ways. I was exposed to the supply chain issues that the local manufacturers were facing, we engaged with local and state government to identify sources of funding and to create export services that were beneficial to the businesses. World Trade Day was something that I looked forward to because experts from outside the state would often fly in to share their perspectives and discuss larger trends in trade or foreign affairs. I learned what services federal agencies provide to businesses, such as the U.S. Department of Commerce, SBA, and Export Import Bank, to name a few. The government programs available to businesses here in the United States are significant and because the government doesn’t spend much money on marketing, part of the role that we have today is explaining what government services are available to assist businesses and facilitating introductions. Partnerships are essential and I learned that whenever possible, trying to turn your competitors into partners is helpful in the long run.
Ray Fogarty gave me a wonderful opportunity to intern for him. With time I added value and he empowered me, eventually the internship turned into a business development position. He was a natural mentor, authentic and open minded and I think that young people in particular are adept at sensing the inauthentic and I embraced every opportunity he offered me. We maintained an office at the Providence Convention Center Authority, and in the RI Commerce Corp in addition to the Bryant Office and at the time we closely coordinated on how to work across organizations to promote the great things that were happening in RI abroad.
Chris: How do you think the world of trade has changed since you worked at the Chafee Center?
Andrew: Ray could see that technology was changing trade, and he invested in it. A large focus of the Center in 1998 was to provide RI businesses with trade data to help them identify trends, identify demand, and find new buyers in new markets. At the time, email wasn’t readily available and the internet wasn’t yet fully built out. We had Bryant students conducting research on customs and shipping data by harmonized codes and we were reorganizing it to make it easier to read and interpret. Believe it or not, we put the data on CD-ROMs and mailed them to the manufacturers in the state because that was the technology of the time. We had a sophisticated videoconferencing system that we rented to companies to showcase their products for foreign buyers that we would line up. That was an investment of well over a million dollars by the University that today is available for free on everyone’s mobile phones– it isn’t unlike Facetime.
The EU was picking up steam with just 11 members and they developed a common currency, the Euro, which was adopted in 1999 to make cross boarder flows easier in Europe. NAFTA was the only bilateral or multilateral trade agreement that we had in place where as now we have agreements with 20 countries. China was considered a developing country at that time and everything of any significance in international trade was taking place through face-to-face interactions and meetings or in some cases by phone. Exhibitions, trade shows and government-led missions were the primary way that companies could find trading partners before the internet was well established. In many ways the world has become much smaller and easier to navigate because of advancements in technology, transportation and automation. Because of technology there now exists a demand for similar goods and services from people all over the world and the way social media has changed marketing and how people consume information and news is amazing to me.
Chris: The United States has been making major changes to former trade agreements. For example, USMCA will take the place of NAFTA. In comparison to NAFTA, what benefits will USMCA bring to the economies involved?
Andrew: There is a lot of information out there on this subject and I will leave it to others to debate the pros and cons of the new version versus the old. However, from my perspective, the world economy has changed significantly since 1993 when NAFTA was ratified and it made sense to update the agreement. Keep in mind that USMCA still needs to pass Congress and the old NAFTA will need to be ended. You can expect some back and forth on this before it will be ratified given the change of leadership in the House.
Chris: The world of trade is evolving; economists and analysts are consistently debating on what the future holds. Based on your expertise, what does the future of U.S. trade look like? Furthermore, how will the global economy be impacted?
Andrew: While there seems to be a general reexamination of global economic policies on the macro level, I think that the pendulum will also swing back the other way. The administration, in my opinion, is taking on issues such as intellectual property protection and other issues that aren’t easily addressed. The global economy has more than doubled in size since I worked at the Chafee Center and is too intertwined to unwind at this point and should we need a reminder of that, we can look to the Brexit machinations that are currently going on across the pond. The WTO has grown to include 164 member countries and could be modernized which would benefit the U.S. While the short term is anyone’s guess, in the long run the economic principle of comparative advantage and similar consumer demand goods, energy and services will continue to drive global trade and nations will continue to suggest structural changes that most benefit their workers and industries.
Chris: Any other recent developments you’d like to share or promote?
Andrew: We are excited about our on-line trade portal that we developed called WebPort Global. It is an ecosystem of World Trade Centers, trade organizations, banks, service providers and producers that can help businesses connect in a dedicated environment to new partners around the world. Members of WebPort Global receive educational opportunities, new contacts, market and industry analysis, access to global intelligence, focused lead generation and more. Please have a look at this tool by visiting our website at www.webportglobal.com.
Thank you, Andrew – not just for your explanations and reflections – but for the work you and all those a part of World Trade Centers across the globe do on a daily basis.