Tampa native Francisco Sanchez finished his last weekend as under secretary of the International Trade Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce on a high note. He organized and hosted the first SelectUSA Investment Summit, which attracted 1,200 people from 70 countries.
President Barack Obama spoke at the conference and praised SelectUSA as “the first-ever, fully coordinated U.S. government effort to recruit businesses to invest and create new jobs in the United States.”
It made for a nice send-off for Sanchez, 54, who announced in September he would depart from the post where he oversaw 2,100 employees and enforced trade agreements and developed trade policies. Wednesday was his last day.
Obama appointed Sanchez, an early supporter, soon after his election, and the Tampa native appeared to relish the job, where he spearheaded the administration’s goal to double exports in five years and traveled to 45 countries.
Sanchez, who ran for Tampa mayor in 2003, had earlier served as a special assistant to the envoy to the Americas during the Clinton administration and also worked as assistant secretary for transportation. Prior to his appointment to Commerce, he worked as a business consultant headquartered in Tampa.
We caught up with him the other day as he was making the final preparations for his SummitUSA conference, where Cabinet members and Fortune 500 CEOs urged foreign companies to invest in the United States.
Q: Why are you leaving?
Answer: I am a political appointee, and at this level most people stay two to three years, and I’ve been at Commerce for 41⁄2. I’m excited about things we’ve done. I just think it’s time to go back to the private sector and do some interesting things.
Q: What are you going to do?
Answer: I am going to associate with a private equity firm and, much like I’m doing now, I’m going to help American companies export abroad. And I’ll probably associate with a think tank here, and I’ll continue to focus on trade policies. (On Thursday he revealed he will serve as a senior managing director at Pt Capital, an Alaska-based asset management firm focused on socially responsible investing in the Pan-Arctic and also will be a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.)
Q: Are you going to stay in Washington?
Answer: For the time being. I plan to return to Florida, but not for the immediate future.
Q: High points of your tenure?
Answer: Since the launch of the National Export Initiative, which has largely been during my tenure here, we have helped 22,0000 companies realize about $190 billion in U.S. export content. About 96 percent are small- and medium-sized companies.
I’m also proud of having opened up commercial dialogs with Russia, with Turkey and strengthened commercial dialogs with India, Brazil and China. These are all markets that are emerging. ... I am also very happy to have played a role in establishing the commercial dialogs with Indonesia and with East Africa and in launching the Doing Business in Africa Initiative last year.
Q: How about the administration’s goal of doubling exports in five years?
Answer: We are doing well. It was always a stretch goal, and since 2009 we’ve increased exports by a whopping 41 percent, which is still a long way to go to the goal, but a pretty extraordinary number. And in that four years we’ve had two record-breaking years for exports. In 2011, we exported $2.1 trillion and in 2012, we exported $2.2 trillion. So we are clearly trending in the right direction.
Q: Why should all this matter to individual Americans?
Answer: Well, because exports now support 10 million jobs, and they tend to pay pretty good. And since we embarked on the National Export Initiative, we’ve contributed about 1.3 million jobs that are supported by exports.
Q: And you also try to attract foreign investment here?
Answer: We now have a office called SelectU.S., and my last major activity as under secretary will be overseeing the first-ever SelectU.S. Investment Conference, where we are literally turning people away. ... We stood up that office to attract investment here, which is a very important part of our economy. Just under 6 million Americans are employed by subsidiaries of foreign-owned companies.
Q: Did you work directly with the president?
Answer: I did. I wouldn’t say I saw him every week, but I saw him regularly because he took a real interest in trade, launching the National Export Initiative, spearheading the ratification of the Colombia, Panama and South Korea trade agreements, launching the TransPacific Partnership, launching the European-U.S. trade talks.
It’s been a very big part of his agenda.
Q: Did he participate in your trade efforts?
Answer: He is the salesman in chief. Under my shop I run an office called the Advocacy Center, and we can advocate on behalf of American companies that are bidding on government procurement projects around the world. Everything from the purchase of airplanes to infrastructure programs ... and if the ticket item is big enough, the president picks up the phone and makes a pitch.
Q: Yet this administration is widely viewed as being anti-business.
Answer: I think the position is unfounded. We live in a global economy today, and our biggest opportunities now are making sure that American businesses have the best opportunity to be competitive around the world, and this president has fought hard to open up markets.
I do take issue with that view. This is a president who inherited the worst financial crisis dating back to 1929, and he had to make some tough decisions, some of which some people didn’t like. ... We’re coming out of it. We’ve had steady job growth going four years.
The president understands that the free market system works and that the free market system is the backbone of our economy and of job creation, and I have been very proud to serve this president, who has supported businesses in many, many ways.
Q: Has the gridlock in Washington affected you? Answer: The shutdown sure did. ... I was leading a trade mission in the Middle East when I was called back home because of the shutdown, and it was embarrassing worldwide for governments to look at us and say you can’t even run your government.
Some of the people who led the shutdown are concerned about the deficit, but not solving the debt ceiling in a timely manner actually added to our deficit because of our costs of borrowing went up. ... I think it hurt our economy.
Q: With your broad view of trade, do you see opportunities that Florida is missing?
Answer: I would say American business as a whole needs to think more globally. A little over 1 percent of American businesses export. And I’m happy during my tenure we saw that number go from appropriately 257,000 small and medium-size companies that export to nearly 300,000. So there is an increasing awareness that we have to participate in the global economy.
Ninety-five percent of the world’s consumers live outside the United States; 80 percent of the world’s growth will happen outside the United States. The fastest- growing component of the middle class is happening in emerging markets, not here.
So American companies that have an exportable service need to be thinking globally. That is my message to Florida and that is my message to small- and medium-sized companies around the country. And I’m happy to see more and more are heeding the call.
Joe Guidry is the opinion editor of The Tampa Tribune.