TAMPA — Brazil is Florida’s No. 1 trade partner when it comes to exports. But getting in the door isn’t easy. Cutting through red tape and tariffs requires a sharp tool.
Enter Sueli Bonaparte, who for 17 years served as executive director of the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce in New York City, slicing through bureaucracy to create international partnerships. After moving to Florida a few years back, Bonaparte said, she saw a lot of untapped potential for connecting business threads between this state and her native Brazil.
So, when the Brazil-Florida Chamber of Commerce left Tampa and moved to Brevard County in 2012 to help bolster a faltering Space Coast, Bonaparte hatched a plan to fill that void. She officially launched the Brazil-Florida Business Council in March to provide a forum for business people to exchange ideas and network, and to facilitate and drive economic growth.
In addition to driving new export opportunities, Bonaparte’s council is also helping Brazilians coming here to invest in American businesses and real estate. With Brazil’s economy slumping, a lot more Brazilians are looking to invest here, she said.
Already, the council is attracting a multitude of interests, from attorneys to bankers, airlines, entrepreneurs and realtors in both countries. The council meets monthly for mixers to help members get to know each other and forge alliances in their efforts to grow business between this state and the South American country.
“We are the guide to get businesses through the process,” Bonaparte said. “For any of our business members, we provide services and assistance on how to enter the market, as well as getting through the regulations and the paperwork.”
“Brazil has always been one of our top trading partners,” said Eileen Rodriguez, regional director of the Florida Small Business Development Center, which is affiliated with the University of South Florida. “As a matter of fact, I’ve been teaching a class on introduction to international trade, and Brazil is always a part of that conversation.
“We export a good bit to them and they, needless to say, export to us as well,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of exports going to Brazil from here are electronics, aircraft parts and vehicles. Also, fertilizers are another top commodity.”
Brazil imports orange juice, coffee and aircraft parts into Florida.
Making that connection can be trying, Rodriguez said, and business people need to be prepared for what they will face. “There are tariffs involved, there is red tape,” she said. “Those things affect everyone in the U.S. trying to do business with Brazil, but affect Florida even more because it is one of our top trade partners.
“It can be a little cumbersome,” Rodriguez said, but pays off for businesses patient enough to wade through the process.
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Enterprise Florida, the principal economic development agency for the state and a public-private partnership between business and government leaders, keeps statistics on trade with various countries. It reports that in 2013, the Tampa metropolitan area accounted for nearly 11 percent of all exports from the state. In 2014, Florida companies exported nearly $5.1 billion in goods and services to Brazil.
The top exports from Florida to Brazil were aircraft engines and parts, electric apparatus for telephony, electronic integrated circuits and automated data process machines.
“There are so many untapped business opportunities both in this region and the state,” Bonaparte said. “There are opportunities, and there was definitely a need for a business organization like this. Because there is not only trade, but Brazilians coming here to invest in condominiums, fitness centers and financial institutions.”
Bonaparte said her council is working with economic development agencies to help attract even more businesses here and to direct Brazilians on where to invest their money.
“I’ve been very impressed by Sueli and the events she has had and the order she has brought to the process,” said Mike Meidel, Pinellas County economic development director.
“The big thing she can do is connect people,” Meidel said. “We already have a lot of Brazilian investment in this area, and Brazilian tourists, and we have more opportunities to capitalize on that.” Bonaparte’s council will help make that happen, he said.
Jose Salas-Vernis, with Merrill Lynch in Clearwater, is one member attracted to the council to help Brazilian investors. “I can help with finance and capital projects, and with Copa (Airlines) now offering flights to and from Brazil, I expect we will see a big influx” of visitors, he said during a recent council mixer in Carrollwood. “We can help them get established from a financial perspective. As our economy picks up, their investments will pick up.”
Copa flies from Tampa International Airport to Panama City, Panama, where it connects to cities throughout South America, including Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Sergio de Oliveira, who speaks Portuguese and is of Brazilian heritage, has transitioned from consumer electronics exporting to commercial lending and is anxious to see how the council can help him.
“I’m hoping this will open doors for me, but also, to help them open doors here,” de Oliveira said.
Polk State College, at its campuses in Lakeland and Winter Haven, is working on international initiatives and with the business community to expand opportunities through student training. Groups like the Brazil-Florida Business Council can enhance global studies at the school, said Naomi Boyer, associate vice president of strategic initiatives.
“We’re working with the Central Florida Development Council right now on a trip to Panama for students,” Boyer said. The Brazil-Florida council gives the school “an active seat at the table,” to glean information it can share with students about how real world business works, she said.
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Rodrigo Souza, vice president of finance for Gerdau Long Steel North America, said the new council will give his company another inroad to customers in Brazil looking to buy steel products, then help them to set up financing for those purchases. Gerdau has about 500 employees in the Tampa area.
“Unfortunately, Brazil is one of the most difficult countries to do business with,” due to the high number of regulations and paperwork, Bonaparte said. “You need to have the knowledge to get through the system.”’
To learn more about the council, visit www.brazilfloridabusiness.com.